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Culture

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek

A Woman in the Crossfire is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings in Syria; or at least the first few months of them.

This is my book from Syria for the Read The World challenge. Because of the rules I’ve set myself, that the books should be written by people from the countries in question, I often find it frustratingly difficult to find books which are up to date, and which engage with life in those countries as it is now: usually if a book is only twenty years old I’m doing quite well.

This book is certainly up to date. Or at least, as a piece of journalism I suppose it’s already slightly out of date; it covers the period from March to July last year, and the situation in Syria has moved on since then. But it still feels very fresh and raw.

Like A Poet and Bin Laden, this is journalism (in a broad sense) written by a novelist. And although it is much less ‘literary’ in form — it’s written in a pretty straightforward diary form, plus interviews she did with other Syrians — there are certainly bits that don’t quite read like standard journalism. Most obvious is the amount of emphasis on her own emotional and psychological experience. It rubs against the normal assumption of journalism that keeping the journalist out of the story is evidence of objectivity.

But actually, the psychological pressures on a dissident living in a police state which is cracking down violently on protests is a fascinating subject in its own right. The sleeplessness, the panic and uncertainty, the fear that the regime will take revenge, not just on her but on her daughter: this is an important part of the story of what it means to live in a dictatorship. And it makes it all the more admirable that she kept on putting herself in danger by going out to observe protests and conduct interviews; and completely unsurprising that after a few months she chose to leave the country, taking her daughter with her.

At times it starts to feel a bit repetitive because, well, events were repetitive: there are an awful lot of protests and massacres. Generally, though, the quality of the writing is enough to keep up the interest. The book does a particularly good job of providing a sense of life as it happened; it’s not just the facts, it’s the texture of experience.

» The photo Banyas Demos – / Syria سورية مظاهرات /صور بانياس, from 6th May 2011, is © Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom and used under a CC attribution licence.

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Culture

The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani

I heard about The Book of Khalid because last year was the centenary of its publication, and there was a burst of publicity to celebrate it as the first Arab-American novel. There’s a fuller biography of Rihani here, but here’s the snapshot version: Ameen Fares Rihani was born in Lebanon, but the family moved to New York for business when he was eleven. He moved back to Lebanon at 23 for health reasons [and later back to New York and back to Lebanon again] and he wrote books in both English and Arabic — The Book of Khalid being one of those written in English.

Obviously it occurred to me that I could read The Book of Khalid as my book from Lebanon for the Read The World challenge, and it’s out of copyright, so I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg. But there are quite a few contemporary Lebanese writers available in English translation, and I was also considering those. So I didn’t get round to reading it until a few days ago when I was looking at my Kindle, wondering what to read, and thought I might as well give it a go.

And I have to say that I was immediately quite impressed; it struck me as more interesting and more modern than I was expecting.

It is the story of Khalid. He grows up as a muleteer in Baalbek in Lebanon, and raises enough money to move to New York; while living there he becomes an autodidact, reading literature and philosophy from second-hand books, and moving in various interesting New York circles; later he moves back to Lebanon and becomes a bit of a philosopher and political activist. Quite a lot of it is clearly somewhat autobiographical from Rihani: self-education in a basement in Brooklyn, and a period of asceticism in the mountains of Lebanon, for example.

The book is written in the voice of someone who has found an autobiographical manuscript written in Arabic by Khalid, but who is also working from another account written by Khalid’s friend Shakib. Large chunks of the novel are supposedly directly quoted from these manuscripts, but they are tied together by the unnamed ‘Editor’, who (i) is presumably responsible for the translation into English; (ii) tells quite a lot of the story as a third person narrative; and (iii) provides a certain amount of running commentary, which is frequently sceptical or at least slightly sardonic.

So you have Rihani writing the ‘autobiography’ of a character who is clearly a poorer, less sophisticated version of himself, with commentary provided by that character’s more conventional, earnest, slightly comical friend, and then commentary on both of them from a worldly and distinctly patronising Editor. You can see why I think it feels modern.

It also makes me unsure how to unpick the prose style. It is distinctly flowery by modern standards; this obviously reflects changing literary fashion, but I wasn’t sure whether it was also a stylistic device as part of the characterisation of the Editor. Some of the vocabulary in particular — umbrageous, stivy, nephelococcygia, propylon, steatopygous, edacious — makes it seem like a parody of a certain kind of writing. Or take these little passages. This is commentary from the Editor:

This leisure hour is the nipple of the soul. And fortunate they who are not artificially suckled, who know this hour no matter how brief, who get their nipple at the right time. If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate. Do you wonder why the world is full of crusty souls? and why to them this infant hour, this suckling while, is so repugnant? But we must not intrude more of such remarks about mankind. Whether rightly suckled or not, we manage to live; but whether we do so marmot-like or Maronite-like, is not the question here to be considered.

‘If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate’ is a particularly magnificently baroque sentence. This is a bit from Khalid himself:

“Here, where my forebears deliquesced in sensuality, devotion, and grief, where the ardency of the women of Byblus flamed on the altar of Tammuz, on this knoll, whose trees and herbiage are fed perchance with their dust, I build my athafa (little kitchen), Arab-like, and cook my noonday meal. On the three stones, forming two right angles, I place my skillet, kindle under it a fire, pour into it a little sweet oil, and fry the few eggs I purchased in the village. I abominate the idea of frying eggs in water as the Americans do.1 I had as lief fry them in vinegar or syrup, where neither olive oil nor goat-butter is obtainable. But to fry eggs in water? O the barbarity of it! Why not, my friend, take them boiled and drink a little hot water after them? This savours of originality, at least, and is just as insipid, if not more. Withal, they who boil cabbage, and heap it in a plate over a slice of corn-beef, and call it a dish, can break a few boiled eggs in a cup of hot water and call them fried. Be this as it may. The Americans will be solesistically simple even in their kitchen.

Now surely it’s an intentional bit of mock-heroic styling to counterpose the highflown stuff about ‘women of Byblus’ and ‘altar of Tammuz’ and the kvetching about American eggs. Especially since the passage is footnoted thus:

1. Khalid would speak here of poached eggs, we believe. And the Americans, to be fair, are not so totally ignorant of the art of frying. They have lard—much worse than water––in which they cook, or poach, or fry—but the change in the name does not change the taste. So, we let Khalid’s stricture on fried eggs and boiled cabbage stand.—Editor.

Apart from the tricksy book-within-a-book structure of it, the other modern echo is political. It is an account of a young Arab man visiting the West, becoming disenchanted with it, returning to Middle East and calling for a return to a purer, more spiritual form of Islam: he sees Wahhabism as the great hope, which slightly startled me. Not that Khalid shows any signs of becoming a terrorist or even, really, a religious extremist; but still, that parallel is there. Of course it’s a pattern which has repeated many times over the centuries: responding to a decadent society by calling for a purer form of Islam to come out of the desert.

The most striking coincidence comes when he is advocating the overthrow of the oppressors and says “It is the beginning of Arabia’s Spring” — even if in this case the oppressors are the Ottoman Empire rather than Mubarak or Gaddafi or American imperialism.

It’s an interesting book. I found it a little hard going in places — there are some long discussions of religio-politico-spiritual-cultural matters where the elaborate prose style really started to drag, and bits where the book loses forward momentum a bit — but there were also bits which were lively and clever and engaging. It was certainly worth reading.

» The watercolour of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in Syria is by John Singer Sargent and is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the advertisement for the Bayrooty Troupe is from the New York Public Library.

Categories
Culture

Qatari Voices

Qatari Voices is an anthology edited by two people — Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar — who organise a writing workshop at a Qatar university, supported by a grant from the US State Department. And the book is essentially a result of that project.

So it is not a book put together by someone who, seeing a vibrant natural growth of Qatari writing, was excited enough to organise an anthology. It is a collection of undergraduate essays written by students who are actually studying engineering, or law, or medicine, or whatever. And I guess there’s no reason why an engineering student shouldn’t have a glittering prose style and a penetrating social insight… but, as it turns out, these ones don’t.

To be fair, whatever the purpose of this book is — which isn’t clear to me — it’s not something they were expecting random people halfway round the world to buy and read for pleasure. It’s not really appropriate to judge it by fierce literary standards.

And it isn’t completely without interest; you do get some sense of the whiplash speed of change in Qatar over the past 60 years, from a poor desert country of fishermen and pearl divers, where girls were expected to get married at about 14, to a fabulously oil-rich nation where women can study to be doctors. But although those changes make Qatar and the other Gulf states one of the most fascinating parts of the world at the moment, these essays do not have the kind of insight necessary to go beyond the obvious.

But it serves as a book from Qatar for the Read The World challenge, so it meets my requirements at least.

» WCMC-Q is a photo of West Cornell Medical College in Qatar. © vobios and used under a CC-by licence.

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Culture

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt is a novel about an unnamed Middle-Eastern country where desert tribesmen have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the oil industry. Think Saudi Arabia.

It’s 600 pages long and it’s only the first book in a quintet, so this is storytelling on a grand scale; I have to say I’m seriously impressed by it, and considering buying the next one.

There are two things which I think are particularly clever about the way it’s written. The first is that it has a large cast of characters while still feeling like a cohesive narrative. So you get a chapter or two about one person, and then the focus moves to someone else and the first character fades into the background, then after another couple of chapters you move onto a third person; and over the course of the book the cast of characters changes completely. in that way it’s very much the story of a place rather than a person. But it manages to do it in a way which feels very organic; it doesn’t read like a collection of separate stories.

The other thing I like is that even though the story is about the arrival of the (American) oil industry, it is told completely from the perspective of the Arab characters. So even though it is the Americans who are driving events much of the time, by digging wells and building roads and employing the locals, they are peripheral figures in the narrative. They just happen in the background, like the weather, and we only see them in glimpses. They are always behind the fence.

I guess that’s not unusual in post-colonial fiction, but it’s particularly effective here. Not that Saudi Arabia is actually a former colony, but it is similarly a country transformed by the arrival of outsiders. The initial encounter is on a small scale in a wadi in the desert, and the reaction is total bafflement; as the novel moves on, the scope opens out and the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex and messier.

As soon as the camp was erected, the men paced off the area, put up wire fencing and short white pickets, scattered some strange substance around the tents and sprayed the earth with water that had a penetrating smell. Then they opened up their crates and unloaded large pieces of black iron, and before long a sound like rolling thunder surged out of this machine, frightening men, animals and birds. After several minutes of the rumbling, one of the Americans raised his hand and signalled to another, who extinguished the sound, but it was a long time before it stopped ringing in the ears.

When that was over, as fast as a magic trick, the people still watched everything that went on in silence and fear. When the sun began to sink in the west, it seemed that Wadi al-Uyoun was about to experience a night such as it had never known before. As soon as the animals began to bark and bray at sunset, the machine began to roar again, frightening everyone, only this time the sound was accompanied by a blinding light. Within moments scores of small but brilliant suns began to blaze, filling the whole area with a light that no one could believe or stand. The men and boys retreated and looked at the lights again to make sure they still saw them, and they looked at each other in terror. The animals who drew near retreated in fright; the camels fled, and the sheep stirred uneasily. Miteb stood not far from the place and spoke loudly enough to command attention over the fear and the machine’s noise. “Go back, people of Wadi al-Uyoun! If you don’t go back you’ll get burned and there’ll be nothing left of you.”

This marvellous incident, so crystal clear and yet impossible to believe at first, became with time a routine affair, for the men who for a certain period kept silent and watched everything in fear mixed with anticipation were soon used to it. Ibn Rashed went forward and asked Ghorab to explain how the lights and sound were produced, but in spite of a long and detailed explanation no one understood anything.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif*, translated by Peter Theroux, is my book from Jordan for the Read The World challenge.

* or, according to Wikipedia, Abdul Rahman Munif; or using the Library of Congress system, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. And just for the sake of completeness: عبد الرحمن منيف‎.

Apparently ‘Abdul’ is not actually a stand-alone name at allʻAbd al– means ‘servant of the’ and is part of a longer name: so Abdul Rahman means ‘Servant of the Benevolent’, Abdul Aziz is ‘Servant of the Almighty’,  and so on. Given how many names for God there are in Islam, there are loads of possible variants. So that’s something I’ve learnt today.

» At the camel market in Riyadh is © Charles Roffey and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

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Culture

Thirsty River by Rodaan Al Galidi

This is the second book in a row for the Round The World challenge which I can say, without any caveats, that I straightforwardly enjoyed. So that’s good. Thirsty River is my book for Iraq, though Rodaan Al Galidi fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998, so it’s actually translated from Dutch.*

It’s a multi-generational family story tracing the history of Iraq from before the Saddam years to after the American invasion. One of the blurbs says “García Márquez for Colombia and Al Galidi for Iraq”, and the book is in that kind of magical realist tradition; although as with a few books I’ve read recently, I find myself wanting to refer to ‘magical realism’ even though there isn’t actually much magic in them. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude has genuinely impossible, supernatural events in it; Thirsty River has some unlikely, striking events, but they are not generally supernatural. But there’s a similar mood, a kind of theatricality, with odd things happening to slightly odd people.

Of course there’s nothing exclusive to magical realism about exaggerated characters and slightly implausible plots; you could say the same about Dickens. And I wonder if I would even think of referring to it as ‘magical realism’ if it was set in Surrey rather than southern Iraq. But there’s still something that seems to connect these books into a sort of genre; perhaps it’s a slightly detached attitude to the central characters?

Anyway, such taxonomical considerations aside: I did enjoy it. By the end of the novel the enjoyment was of a slightly mixed kind, because Iraq’s recent history has not been all unicorns and rainbows, and the book’s characters have a pretty brutal time of it.

Here’s a little excerpt.

Hadi the Rocket was a middle-aged man. He had a thick black moustache, from which he always plucked the grey hairs with tweezers. In his chest pocket was a comb and a miror, with which he kept his moustache in shape. Hadi the Rocket came from a poor family in Boran, whose members sold ice in the summer, and coal and oil in the winter. His father had owned a cart and an old horse. After primary school, Hadi began to work with his father. He had thought at was his lot to get old sitting int he street, until he became a member of the Ba’ath party.

“God in heaven, the party on earth,” he always said when the Ba’ath party was still underground.

“The party in heaven, Mr President on earth,” he said when the Ba’ath party seized power and was the only party remaining.

“Mr President is the heaven of the fatherland, the party his ground,” was the slogan when Saddam seized power.

Sometimes Hadi the Rocket forgot  his own house, which the party had given him, his wives, which he had also received from the party, and his children and he slept in his uniform in the party’s house. Every time people became more afraid of him, he felt safer and became friendlier. Little photos of Saddam Hussein were pinned to his clothes and he wore watches bearing his image. he gave the photos to everyone, and the watches to people who were higher up in the party then himself, as if it were an offering to the gods. No one was as attached to anything as Hadi the Rocket was to the Ba’ath party; not medieval suitors to their lovers, nor knights to their swords, nor believers to their gods.

* Incidentally, full marks to Luzette Strauss, the translator, for her sparing use of endnotes: just 12 for a 300 page novel. Since I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction over the past couple of years, distracting and unnecessary endnotes have become a real pet hate of mine.

» saddam elvis, originally uploaded to Flickr by and © rakkasan69.

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Culture

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish

The Butterfly’s Burden is a translation of three books by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died earlier this year: The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002) and Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done (2003). It’s a parallel text edition, which always makes me feel terribly learned, but in practice is just a waste of trees since I can’t even read Arabic script.

I am writing this post without having read the whole thing, which may be an admission of defeat. I’ve been having some difficulty connecting to it. I’m not inclined to blame Darwish for that: I imagine it’s partially the basic awkwardness of reading poetry in translation which is, as they say, like eating a Mars bar with the wrapper on; partially a lack of contextual knowledge on my part; and perhaps partially down to the translation by Fady Joudah, although I’m not in a position to judge it as a translation. And of course, very likely because of my own biases as a reader.

I initially picked it up and dipped in at random, which wasn’t a success, so I sat down and read A State of Siege straight through from beginning to end, and actually I did quite get into it and enjoy it. So, heartened by that, I tried the same thing with The Stranger’s Bed, but despite a few moments where I thought I was getting somewhere, I found it a bit of a chore. There were images or passages or moments that I thought were striking or effective, but I felt that on some basic level I just wasn’t getting it; the whole wasn’t cohering into more than the sum of the parts, and I found it all a bit frustrating.

I will make an attempt on Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done as well, but whether or not I finish it I’m still going to claim Darwish as my writer from Palestine for the Read The World challenge, because I read two of the three books, and I think that’s good enough.

For an extract I’m going to pick something from A State of Siege, since that was the book I enjoyed most; in a sense, though, it’s a more difficult piece to pick extracts from because it isn’t divided into separate poems. Instead, it’s a thirty-page poem built up of short lyrical fragments, separated on the page by a little typographical squiggle. They work together cumulatively, and the poem has a kind of reflective tone; they could be the journal entries of a slightly gnomic diarist, or the contents of a notebook. The poem was written during the Second Intifada, and the conflict is the central subject, but the poem circles around it, sometimes explicitly talking about politics and violence, sometimes about poetry or love.

The mother said:
I did not see him walking in his blood
I did not see the purple flower on his foot
he was leaning against the wall
and in his hand
a cup of hot chamomile
he was thinking of his tomorrow …

The mother said: In the beginning of the matter I didn’t
comprehend the matter. they said: He just got married
a little while ago. So I let out my zaghareed, then danced and sang
until the last fraction of the night, when
the sleepless were gone and only baskets of purple flowers
remained around me. Then I asked: Where are the newlyweds?
Someone said: There, above the sky, two angels
are consummating their marriage … So I let out my zaghareed,
then danced and sang until I was struck
with a stroke.
When then, my beloved, will this honeymoon end?

This siege will extend until
the besieger feels, like the besieged,
that boredom
is a human trait

O you sleepless! have you not tired
from watching the light in our salt?
And from the incandescence of roses in our wounds
have you not tired, O sleepless?

We stand here. Sit here. Remain here. Immortal here.
And we have only one goal:
to be. Then we’ll disagree over everything:
over the design of the national flag
(you would do well my living people
if you choose the symbol of the simpleton donkey)
and we’ll disagree over the new anthem
(you would do well if you choose a song about the marriage of doves)
and we’ll disagree over women’s duties
(you would do well if you choose a woman to preside over security)
we’ll disagree over the percentage, the private and the public,
we’ll disagree over everything. And we’ll have one goal:
to be …
After that one finds room to choose other goals

» The photograph is of Mahmoud Darwish’s funeral in Ramallah and is © activestills.org.