Bordering on Malicious
The new Words Without Borders anthology of writing from the Middle East is marred by a key omission
Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East (W.W. Norton), a big, diverse new anthology spanning the years 1910-2010, is published under the auspices of Words Without Borders, an organization dedicated to promoting literary translation. The name expresses a pious hope: People may be divided by artificial boundaries, it implies, but literature is as universal as human nature itself. By reading the poems and essays and stories of strangers—and even enemies, as in the previous Words Without Borders anthology, Literature From the “Axis of Evil”: Writing From Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations—we come to appreciate how much alike we are, how little reason there is for mistrust.
Insofar as American readers think of the Middle East as a region full of real or potential enemies, Tablet and Pen can be seen as another bridge-building exercise. As the editor Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and intellectual, says in his introduction, “the writings in these pages may help move our consciousness of the region away from the ubiquitous images of terrorists and fanatics and toward a new, more constructive set of ideas and metaphors.”
To frame a literary anthology as a response to political enmity, however, is already to cede ground to the mindset that the book means to change. You can see this in the odd way the anthology defines the Middle East. Tablet and Pen includes writing in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, as one would expect, but also a considerable amount of Urdu, the language of Muslims in Pakistan and India. Ordinarily, the Middle East is not considered to extend all the way to Lahore; but if it does, why doesn’t Tablet and Pen include any other languages of the Indian subcontinent, such as Hindi? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for such an anthology to include writers from Palestine, as it does; but then why does it not include any Hebrew writers, since Israel is surely just as central to the Middle East as Palestine?
The answer could not be more obvious: Tablet and Pen is really an anthology of writing from the Muslim world. The religion of Islam is what unites such diverse languages, cultures, and civilizations as Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and Arabic. Not only would there be no harm in acknowledging this, it might even make the book more saleable. Yet Aslan shies away from it: “This is not meant to be an anthology of literature from ‘the Muslim world’—not only because many of the authors do not self-identify as Muslim but also because there is no such thing as a monolithic ‘Muslim world,’ save perhaps in the imaginations of some in the West.” Fair enough—but since the editors opt for a geographic designation like “the Middle East,” rather than one based on religion, the decision to omit Hebrew literature from the book becomes all the more striking.
It also starts to look polemical. Having dismissed Islam as the essence of “the Middle East,” Aslan opts instead for a post-colonialist identity: “What binds together the writers in this collection … is neither borders nor nationalities, but rather a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony. (It is for this reason, and to avoid further complicating the narrative, that Hebrew literature, which has developed along a different path, is not included in this anthology.)” In fact, the contents of the book resist this kind of Saidian simplicity. “Western cultural hegemony” interests only a few of the more engagé intellectuals in Tablet and Pen, while the best pieces—like Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s memoir of the Indian independence movement, “For Freedom’s Sake”—are actually critiques of the human deformations wrought by political grievance.
Yet it is precisely on Aslan’s stated grounds that Hebrew literature would have been a valuable addition to Tablet and Pen. For it, too, can be read as a postcolonial literature. Like India and Pakistan, Israel was created in opposition to the British Empire; like Iran, it is a country with an ancient culture and history that must be reimagined in the modern world. And Hebrew literature, like Arabic literature, uses a Semitic language and European forms, raising questions about Eastern and Western identity. The Israeli perspective on all these questions is different from the Arab or Iranian perspective, of course, but they are shared questions.
If Hebrew writers are not engaged in “a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony,” the troubling implication seems to be that this is because Israel is a creature of Western imperialism, while the peoples represented in Tablet and Pen are its victims. The editors of Tablet and Pen may not believe this, but a number of the contributors definitely do. Take the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, one of the few writers in the book whose name is familiar to Americans—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the only Arabic writer to win the prize so far. Mahfouz is represented by an excerpt from The Seventh Heaven, his last book, published in 2005 (though the anthology does not give any publication dates, a serious handicap for a work so engaged with history).
In Mahfouz’s tale, a young man named Raouf is murdered by his friend Anous, who is his rival for the love of Rashida. At his death, Raouf’s soul ascends to Heaven, where he is told that, while the souls of the pure can ascend to God, the souls of the sinful are reincarnated on Earth. This leads to a discussion of various famous men and their current reincarnations. Adolf Hitler, Mahfouz writes, has been reborn as “Boss Qadri the Butcher,” Anous’ father, a local thug and gangster who keeps the neighborhood in fear. But Boss Qadri, we learn, is only able to operate because he has “bought the loyalty of the shaykh,” the nobleman in charge of the district. And whose soul is reincarnated in that shaykh? “Lord Balfour,” Mahouz writes simply. In other words, the British statesman who signed the Balfour Declaration, supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland, is said to be worse, in some sense, than Hitler, who killed 6 million Jews.
This is a very troubling moment in Tablet and Pen, both because of the eminence of the writer and because of the casualness of the reference. Clearly, Mahfouz knows that his readership will share his opinion of Balfour and, by extension, of Israel. And this kind of reflexive hatred can be found in several contributors. The anthology includes a long performance poem, transcribed from a cassette, by the Iraqi Mozaffar al-Nawwab. Most of the poem is a profane satire on the corruption of Arab rulers and the cruelty of the Lebanese Christians in their civil war with the Lebanese Muslims. “What wonders the Arab oil has done for us!/ We belch to the point of indigestion from hunger/ While the Oil King is afraid of rats getting at his cash,” al-Nawwab declaims, and one can imagine how effective it would all be in performance. And then, at the end of the poem, comes this:
Naft ibn Kaaba [a satirical name for a Gulf oil sheikh] announced
That a meeting would be convened
It’s coincidence, I swear, sheer coincidence
That there were six members
And that the corners of the star are six in total
Oh, star of David, rejoice
Oh, Masonic Lodge, go wild with delight
Oh, finger of Kissinger …
For the royal asshole is hexagonal!
In this image, all of al-Nawwab’s grievances—all the problems of the Arab world—are explained by a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy. It is a concrete example of the anti-Semitic pathology that continues to flourish in the Middle East, even as some Arab intellectuals denounce it. Less mad than this, but just as dire in its implications, is “Letter From Gaza” by Ghassan Kanafani, whose biographical note explains that he was “the spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” and that he was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1972 (but not that this was a reprisal for the PFLP’s massacre of 26 people at Ben Gurion Airport in May of that year). Kanafani writes of visiting his 13-year-old niece, Nadia, in the hospital in Gaza, after she lost her legs in an Israeli bombardment. Such a scene prompts feelings of anger and revenge, of course, and then Kanafani writes: “I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad”—Safad being, as a note explains, “a small town in northern Israel.”
In other words, Kanafani is looking forward to the day when the whole country, not just Gaza, becomes part of Palestine—that is, when Israel is destroyed. Here in a nutshell is the rejectionist attitude that, as Benny Morris wrote recently in Tablet, makes Israeli-Palestinian peace talks so hopeless. The same vengefulness leads Abu Salma, another Palestinian poet, to write: “Some morning we’ll return riding the crest of the tide,/ our bloodied banners fluttering/ above the glitter of spears.” It is a good example of the kind of archaic, aestheticizing treatment of violence that writers in the West have mostly eschewed since the First World War.
One of the problems with this kind of writing is that its unreasoning hatred makes it much harder for Jewish readers to take in the honest, angry witnessing of other Palestinian writers. Zakaria Mohammad’s “This Is Home,” for instance, is a searing account of returning home to Jericho after spending decades abroad:
Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it.
Imagine this rage and resentment multiplied by hundreds of checkpoints and border crossings, and you begin to have a sense of the dimensions of the Israel-Palestine problem. I have focused on that problem in writing about Tablet and Pen, and unfortunately this means I’ve given almost no sense of the majority of the book, which is about so much else—love and desire and youth and age and hope and despair, all the universal subjects that really do make literature a source of understanding and connection across borders. But across borders doesn’t mean without borders, and not all literature is written in a humane spirit—a lesson that a reader of Tablet and Pen can’t help learning.