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Who Knows the Muslim Mind?

Perhaps Muslim and Arab authors can help the confused 'westerner.'

By Charles Demers 11 Aug 2006 |

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Last month, I wrote a fairly harsh review for Tyee Books of John Updike's Terrorist, citing especially the fact that Arabs and Muslims are better suited to tell their own stories. Here is a short list of books available in English that do just that. Some religious Muslim readers may protest that I have privileged the works of secular and often politically progressive Arab and Muslim writers; some readers of European extraction may protest that the authors I've listed have funny names that are hard to remember. If I've enraged both sides of the Huntingtonian divide, then I'll have done my job.

The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), Sugar Street (1957) By Naguib Mahfouz (Everyman's Library collected edition, 2001) Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is the Cervantes of the Middle East -- before him, there was no such thing as an Arab novel. (The poem is generally considered to be the Arab literary form par excellence.)

His crowning achievement, The Cairo Trilogy, tells the multi-generational story of a Muslim family from the time of the First World War to the eve of Nasser's revolution in 1952. Mahfouz was the victim of an attempted assassination by an Islamist; he's also the first Arab to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Cairo Trilogy is full of all the wine, music and sex that both Bush and Bin Laden want you to believe Arabs don't drink, play, or have, respectively.

The Islam Quintet: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992), The Book of Saladin (1998), The Stone Woman (2000), A Sultan in Palermo (2005) and an upcoming title yet to be announced By Tariq Ali (Verso) When renowned Pakistan-born British writer, filmmaker, anti-war activist and secular socialist Tariq Ali heard a television commentator call the Arabs "a people without a culture" at the time of the first Gulf War, he furiously began researching the very histories that give such a statement the lie. "So I went to Spain," he says, "and uncovered the most wonderful histories."

These histories turned into Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, a novel outlining the heartbreaking story of a family of Muslim nobles in Inquisition-era Spain. (I don't mind telling you that Shadows is the first book to ever make me sob.) The book was originally meant as a stand-alone: "I thought I'd leave it at that, and it was Edward Said who said 'No, no, no, you can't stop. Finish. Write about the whole bloody business.' "

Ali has now written three other books about Islamic history in both Europe and the Middle East, covering Crusades-era Palestine, the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, as well as Arab Sicily. Ali's Quintet is the perfect antidote for those who find themselves convinced of the Samuel Huntington line that Muslim and "western" civilization have nothing to do with each other except at their sundry points of conflict. Rather, Arab and Muslim civilizations -- sometimes in Europe -- helped to shape the so-called "western" world to an enormous degree. (You can read my interview with Tariq Ali here.)

The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel By Emile Habiby (Interlink, 2001) Habiby's story of a Palestinian-Israeli (one of those 'left behind' during the forced expulsions that made room for the state of Israel) is just as absurd and darkly comic as the circumstances that have been hoisted upon the Palestinian people over the past 60 years.

Habiby served as a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and was active with the Communist Party (one of the few CPs in the world that, like its South African counterpart, managed to shake off some of the deadening weight of Moscow's Stalinism in order to participate dynamically in real-life politics after the Second World War). His titular "pessoptimist" -- a special combination of pessimism and optimism that is the unique purview, here, of the Palestinians -- is Saeed, who fails in his every attempt to ingratiate himself to the Israelis who control his every move.

At one point, the sycophantic protagonist exclaims with delight how easy it is to get used to the rules in Israeli prisons, since they're so much like the rules outside. Habiby's novel is considered one of the seminal works of the Palestinian canon.

The Modern Anthology of Palestinian Literature Edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Columbia University Press, 1992) Salma Jayyusi has arguably done more than anyone else in the English-speaking world to ensure that English-language readers are aware that Palestinians specifically and Arabs generally have staked out a vibrant, modern literary tradition. Not only is she responsible for the translation of several important works (including Habiby's), but she also put together the Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, a more than 700-page survey of Palestine's modern literary output.

Here are poems and short stories translated from Arabic alongside works written originally in English; works by giants such as Mahmoud Darwish as well as lesser-known poets and authors. Jayyusi has also selected a cross-section of contributors illustrating all three dimensions of the "Palestinian Triangle": Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; Palestinians within Israel's pre-1967 borders; and refugees in the Palestinian diaspora.

War in the Land of Egypt By Yusuf al-Qa'id (Interlink, 1997) Egyptians have a long tradition of very dark political jokes -- every time I went to visit my Mid-east history professor, Dr. William Cleveland, in his office, you could see behind him a thick hardcover tome of Egyptian political humour. Cleveland also assigned us -- in his class on modern Egyptian history, where many of us first encountered Mahfouz, too -- Yusuf al-Qa'id's novel, a story very much in this tradition.

The story is set in the post-Nasser Egypt of the odious Anwar Sadat, where the pretense of socialism is dropped in favour of flattering Egypt's notoriously class-conscious traditional elite. The protagonist is Masri (his name means "Egyptian"), a peasant who is being sent to the army in place of his landlord's son. Al-Qa'id's satire must have been painful to somebody in the Egyptian brass, because it was banned in his homeland.

Charles Demers is a regular contributor to Tyee Books.

Related Tyee stories: Charles Demers asks what an old white guy knows about the Muslim mind in 'Terrorist' Offers Islam for Dummies, while Deborah Campbell looks for non-fiction books that offer human insight into the Middle East in What to Read While the Cradle Burns.  [Tyee]