Tablet & Pen

Tonightthe earth has bid all its sins

farewell.The snow’s pallid piety

concealsthe earth-dweller’s blasphemies.

Thissilvery mask on nature’s black face

isthe world’s most beautiful lie.

              –from “FalseDawn”

Thisarresting image of snow is the work of an Iranian poet, Nader Naderpour, andhas been recently translated from the Persian. It is just one of countlessdelights to be found in Tablet & Pen:Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East, an anthology edited by Reza Aslan in conjunctionwith the online magazine Words WithoutBorders. The project was born out of a conviction that we Americans can nolonger afford to know so very little about the Middle East, the ancient,infinitely complex society in which we are now deeply mired. “[F]rom the ‘civilizingmission’ of European colonialism to the ‘clash of civilization’ mentality oftoday,” Aslan comments, “the West’s perception of the Middle East asa mysterious and exotic, savage and erotic place has changed little in the morethan two centuries since Napoleon’s fleet set sail for Egypt. The aim of thisbook is to provide a different, more authentic perception of this rich andcomplex region, an image not fashioned by the descriptions of invaders, butrather one that arises from the diverse literatures of its most acclaimed poetsand writers.”

Working with threeregional editors and seventy-seven translators, Aslan has brought forth anadmirably comprehensive collection of poems, short stories, novel excerpts,essays, and memoirs from countries stretching from Morocco to Iran, translatedfrom Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and Persian. All these pieces date from the lastcentury or so; many have never until now been translated into English. Together,they convey a literary treasure of which most readers in the West are scarcelyaware. “‘[W]hile it may be too much to expect that a collection ofliterature can reframe perceptions of an entire region,” Aslan writes, “itis our hope that this book can go some way toward providing a new paradigm forviewing the mosaic that is the modern Middle East.”

Aslan begins in the yearsjust before the First World War, with the Ottoman Empire heading toward itsfinal decline and the British Raj already running into trouble in India. Ottomanliterary traditions were becoming formalized and stilted; innovators likeKhalil Gibran urged writers to revitalize their native language. “Let yournational zeal,” he wrote, “spur you to depict the mysteries of painand the miracles of joy that characterize life in the East, for it is betterfor you and for the Arabic language to adopt the simplest events in yoursurroundings and clothe them with the fabric of your imagination than totranslate the most beautiful and the most respected of what the Westerners havewritten.” Western genres like the novel and the short story, hithertounknown in the East, were now being adapted to local needs. Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1913) was the first Arab novel;Tawfiq al-Hakim brought the genre further with his Diary of a Country Prosecutor, excerpted here in a translation byAbba Eban. In India, the poet Miraji would also revolutionize his genre byfusing Indian and Western styles.

Imperialism and the scarsof colonial rule are easily recognized as the common thread running through theworks in this anthology. Throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Centraland South Asia, the twentieth century witnessed the fever of revolt and theecstasy of independence. “Rise up!” exhorted Muhammad Iqbal, thegreat Punjabi poet who inspired the idea and the birth of Pakistan; “…Therule of the people is close at hand/Erase all traces of the ancient Raj!” Thewares on offer in Tablet & Penillustrate what Aslan calls “the myriad ways in which literature became atool for forming national identities,” and in perusing its pages wewitness poets and fiction writers not only expressing the aspirations of theirpeople but even helping to create them. The enormously influential Turkish poetNâzim Hikmet was one of those who contributed to a new conception ofpatriotism. “I love my country:/I have swung on its plane trees, I havestayed in its prisons.” His poem “Since I Was Thrown Inside,” areflection on what has gone on in his world during the ten years he has spentin prison, is characteristic of the era: to be incarcerated was practically abadge of honor for those involved in the struggle of throwing off the colonialyoke. Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s memoir ForFreedom’s Sake (excerpted here and translated from the Urdu) sums up theera’s fervent mood:

       Peoplechanted slogans, staged demonstrations, and were sent to prison by thehundreds. Courting arrest had become a favorite pastime: you were apprehendedin the morning and released by the evening. You were tried in the court andthrown in jail for a few months. You came out, shouted another slogan, and gotarrested all over again.

       Those dayswere so full of life!

But after the euphoria ofindependence there came the let-down of reality, as the erstwhile colonialtyrants were replaced with new, native-born ones. In many countries the writerswhose words had helped create the new states soon became their regimes’ mostvocal critics. The Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for instance, was imprisoned as adissident in the 1950s; his poems “Freedom’s Dawn (August 1947),” “August1952,” and “Bury Me Under Your Pavements,” beautifullytranslated from the Urdu by V. G. Kiernan, encapsulate the pain of bruisedideals.

Thisleprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled—

Thisis not that long-looked-for break of day,

Notthat clear dawn in quest of which those comrades

Setout, believing that in heaven’s wide void

Somewheremust be the stars’ last halting-place,

Somewherethe verge of night’s slow-washing tide,

Somewherean anchorage for the ship of heartache.

              –from “Freedom’sDawn (August 1947)”

At mid-century, Turkishwriters entered what is now remembered as a Golden Age of literature, with thelast of the Ottoman literary flourishes swept aside. Attention was paid to thepoor and obscure, and writing about village life became a political act initself: an excerpt from Yasar Kamal’s Mehmed,My Hawk provides a marvelous example of the genre, while Ahmet HamdiTanpinar’s A Mind At Peace recountsthe doings of deracinated urban Istanbullus.In the Arab world a new “postcolonial” generation of writers includedsome world-class figures, including the Syrian poet Adonis, whose “Gravefor New York” is excerpted here, and the Egyptian Nobel Laureate NaguibMahfouz—represented in this anthology by a brilliant segment from The Seventh Heaven.

The 1950s, ’60s, and ’70ssaw Iran between two revolutions, dealing with issues decidedly different fromthose that faced the Arab world. Aslan has included some superb examples ofIranian literature. Houshang Golshiri’s famous story “My China Doll”is here, as is Goli Taraghi’s “The Grand Lady of My Soul”—anunforgettable view of the early days of the 1979 revolution seen through thedetached gaze of a skeptic. Aslan also gives us poems by Ahmad Shamloo, RezaBarahani, and some extraordinary verses by Forugh Farrokhzad, arguably the mostfamous woman in the history of Persian literature. Farrokhzad, who diedtragically in the 1960s at the age of thirty-two, speaks of familiar subjectswith a startlingly personal and original voice:

Ihave sinned a rapturous sin

Ina warm enflamed embrace,

Sinnedin a pair of vindictive arms,

armsviolent and ablaze.

                –from “Sin”

In the last section of theanthology Aslan opts for a porous, transnational format. “[J]ust as theworld is slowly becoming borderless, so too will this final section of ourcollection remain without borders—one writer passing the baton to the next,free of all ethnic or nationalist divisions yet bound together by a sharedsense of historical consciousness.” I have to admit that this seems a bitfanciful to me; there are real differences in the historical consciousness ofAlgeria and Yemen, for instance—or, as recent news items have reminded us,Saudi Arabia and Iran—and while reading this section I found myself constantlyreferring to the Author Biographies at the back of the book for dates,nationalities, context.  

But this is not areference book, nor has Aslan tried to make it one. It is, rather, a sampler,something to whet the appetite and inspire the reader to dig more deeply intothe national literatures on offer. And it is not only the authors who are arevelation but the translators as well, including Kieran, Sholeh Wolpé,Basharat Peer, Edouard Roditi, and Erdag Göknar. Great translators are almostas rare as great writers, and it is a joy to see so many of them represented inone volume.