The desire for beauty
With a new anthology long in the making, Reza Aslan ’95 wants readers to reimagine the literary landscapes of the Middle East.
Every time there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan, India’s army goes on alert. Police step up patrols. Columnists in India fume about Pakistani flags fluttering in Muslim neighborhoods. Cricket becomes the litmus test of loyalty for millions of Indian Muslims.
I wonder what some of those Muslims would make of the new anthology Tablet and Pen—Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East(W.W. Norton, 2011). Reza Aslan ’95, the editor, confesses off the bat that the Middle East is less about geography and more about culture and civilization. That is how he justifies the inclusion of Urdu writers from India and Pakistan. But it’s a tricky decision, and Aslan deserves kudos for taking it. It could be taken to imply that the Urdu writers of India are somehow intrinsically connected to their Arabic peers in a way the Hindi writers of India are not. Perhaps they are. Perhaps national borders just get in the way. The book includes Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia. It includes Persians, who often claim a cultural heritage that is distinct from their Arab neighbors. But Aslan is careful to say that this is not meant to be literature from the Muslim world.
Then what is it? Civilization and culture, geography and religion are all entangled in ways that not even an ambitious anthology can easily disaggregate. Perhaps that is why Aslan writes this is “not an anthology to be tasted in disparate bits but rather a single sustained narrative to be consumed as a whole.” At 600-plus pages that’s a hefty meal. Not everyone will have the appetite for such a repast. But those who do will get rare treats they would never encounter otherwise. While some of the writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Khalil Gibran have already been widely translated, most of the Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu writers included here are unfamiliar names to people outside the region.
Aslan groups them by time, and then within each time period by language. From 1910 to 1950, the period between the wars was when the modern Middle East was carved into being. From 1950 to 1980 was when the new states tried to adjust to their new and unwelcome neighbor, Israel, even as their own governments grew increasingly authoritarian. From 1980 to 2010 we have a more globalized generation. Here Aslan mixes them together: Egyptians and Pakistanis with Turks and Persians, a sort of borderless global ummah—or community—of writers.
Perhaps that is more aspirational than reality; it’s Aslan’s dreamscape rather than any real literary landscape. On the other hand, the domino revolutions that have surged through the region in the wake of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution are perhaps proof that Aslan is on to something there. The old colonial powers treated the region as a chessboard and its rulers as political pawns. Almost all the countries have been under the heels of dictators and strongmen. As history, it’s traumatic, scarred with broken promises. As literature, it’s enthralling—as language that was more used to the courtly flourish of love poems suddenly became much more sinewy, rebellious, devious, and, yes, alive.
The politics is inescapable. It flows like oil beneath the seams of these stories and poems. And sometimes the writing can be too rich in its own history because it was never meant to be consumed outside the region. When Iraqi-born poet Mozaffar al-Nawwab rails against “the pimp of Syria and his sidekick” and the “judge of Baghdad and his testicle,” his audiences in the salons of Baghdad must have chortled. We, however, need to resort to the footnotes. But the most beautiful pieces rise above the politics, quietly testifying to a shared humanity. The excerpt from Aziz Nesin’s memoir Istanbul Boy shines with the luminosity of an Angela’s Ashes, writing about poverty, rickets, and circumcision without sentimentality or social pamphleteering. It whets one’s appetite to read more, which is probably the greatest gift any anthology can give its readers.
What is striking is both the universality and particularity of the experiences. Haifa Zangana writes, “Now whenever I meet comrades who survived, they are burdened like me with the guilt of still being alive.” It’s excerpted from Dreaming of Baghdad; Zangana had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein. But it could have been Dreaming of Tehran or Algiers just as easily.
Some of the strongest work comes from those who are not writing to foment social change but are witnesses to it. Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s candid memoir about pre-Independence India is riveting because it’s about history but not weighed down by it. “To live in poor housing, shun amenities, sing the Lord’s praises, shout patriotic slogans—fine! But to stifle in humans the very desire for beauty!”
Aslan hopes that the anthology will help move us away from the ubiquitous images of terrorists and fanatics. But I hope what this anthology does is also show that the writers of this modern Middle East (however you choose to define it) are telling their own stories for themselves, not to prove they are not terrorists or fanatics. They are not defining themselves in the gaze of the West or in opposition to it. At the end of “The Quilt,” Ismat Chughtai’s marvelous story about forbidden sex in the women’s quarters in an Indian Muslim household, the child narrator finally peeks under the blanket: “What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.” (p154)
Aslan and his team deserve salaams for lifting the quilt a bit and showing us the many literary landscapes that flourish in what we blandly call the Middle East. Sandip Roy
Sandip Roy is an editor with New American Media, currently based in India.
Sarah Winchester: really so mysterious?
Rumor loves a vacuum, and the rumors about the reclusive Sarah Winchester flew fast and furiously long before her death at 83 in 1922. One of the richest people in Northern California, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, she was said to suffer from “gun guilt.” She rarely went out in public, and when she did, she wore a veil over her face. She was thought to be a miser. And a madwoman. Then there was that rambling, decrepit architectural monstrosity near San Jose.
In life, Winchester needed a good press agent to fill the void and clear away the public misconceptions about her. Instead, in death, she got a series of enterprising hucksters who transformed her story into the spooky myths that are essential to the appeal of the most famous South Bay tourist attraction—the Winchester Mystery House.
In her meticulously researched biography, Captive of the Labyrinth (University of Missouri Press, 2010), Mary Jo Ignoffo ’78 dispels most if not all of those myths and misconceptions. Along the way she also illuminates the social history of the two places where Winchester lived—New Haven, Conn., where she was born and married, and the San Francisco Peninsula, where she moved after the untimely death of her husband from tuberculosis. Winchester, it turns out, was an Episcopalian, rather than the practitioner of spiritualism she was rumored to be. She was an attentive businesswoman. Ignoffo finds no evidence that Winchester felt guilty about earning money from sales of the Winchester repeating rifle. But she finds plenty of evidence that Winchester was generous to a tight family circle. In the end, Winchester left most of her fortune to a New Haven hospital serving people with tuberculosis.
In Ignoffo’s telling, Winchester was clearly not mad—but she was definitely strange. The ceaseless making and remaking of her house outside of San Jose seemed to be an odd sort of therapy for Winchester. She was reclusive and she was secretive. She left almost nothing behind that reveals her inner life. As a result, in many ways, Sarah Winchester remains a mystery. But her life presents a different, more human sort of mystery than the one currently retailed for public consumption. Alden Mudge
History, education, poetry
For much of his life, philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan sought to break away from the limited framework of contemporary philosophizing and set sail into a more tantalizing “neglected region” of inquiry. On the downside, writes Thomas J. McPartland ’67, that put Lonergan “at odds with the Zeitgest of the past century.” On the plus side, it made Lonergan a foundational philosopher whose wellspring reflection “can give rise to many streams.” McPartland is professor of Liberal Studies at Kentucky State University. In Lonergan and Historiography (University of Missouri Press, 2010)—the second volume in a larger philosophical exploration— the author ranges confidently across Lonergan’s wide body of work to highlight one downstream-flow of Lonergan’s thinking: his philosophy of history. While Lonergan never devoted a single volume to the topic, it was clearly a concern that broadly engaged him. “His earliest intellectual ambition,” McPartland writes, “was to formulate a modern history of philosophy shorn of progressivist and Marxist bias.” Alden Mudge
An emeritus professor at Loyola Marymount University, where he taught for 30 years, Carroll C. Kearley ’52 has published two collections of poetry of late: Deity-Alphabets and The Armenian Watchmaker (Tebot Bach, 2009 and 2010). In his first, Kearley limns portraits of the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, illuminating endurance, creativity, and beauty. In the second, Kearley goes global: from a Virginia airport to reflections of a traveling Chilean woman to the Armenian genocide.
In his undergraduate days at Santa Clara, Kearley majored in English, and in a note to SCM he singled out “three wonderful profs in my literature courses: Joe Pociask, S.J., James Wade, and Richard Schmidt. When I worked for Gordon Curtis in the periodicals section of the library, the incomparable Fritz Wilhemsen, philosopher, came by almost every day to impart something to me about the Catholic Literary Revival.” Jon Teel ’12
Mary Frances Callan ’65 draws extensively from her firsthand experience as superintendent for 14 years of schools in Milpitas, Pleasanton, and Palo Alto in Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents: A Practical Guide (Corwin, 2011). This unique reference book focuses on the interconnections among leadership, organization, and action, as well as tools for assessing the most appropriate response to any on-the-job situation. Callan serves on the board of Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco and SCU’s Board of Regents. Emily Elrod ’05