Amin Maalouf: Samarkand

November 20, 2021

It is almost impossible to tell a story of Omar Khayyam without involving his contemporaries: Hassan-i Sabbah, founder of the Order of Assassins, and Nizam Al-Mulk, Persian history’s most famous vizier — the very first victim of the Assassins. Their destinies and of Persia’s are so entwined that it would also be impossible to discuss Persian history without touching on this legendary trio. Amin Maalouf takes these characters and animates history with his seamless blending of fact and imagination, making Samarkand an entertaining read for any Persophile.

Chapter one wrests the reader from the present to vibrant 11th century Samarkand where a qadi tells Omar Khayyam, after the latter is nabbed in the marketplace and recognized as a failasuf (a philosopher or a person associated with the sciences widely considered profane at such a time and place), “The Almighty has granted you the most valuable things that a son of Adam can have — intelligence, eloquence, health, beauty, the desire for knowledge and a lust for life… I hope that He has not deprived you of the wisdom of silence, without which all of the foregoing can neither be appreciated nor preserved.”

The wise judge proceeds to present the young Omar a blank book wherein he could write his thoughts instead of speaking them out loud to a populace unprepared for his unconventional views. The pages would then be filled and would persevere through time to become what we know as The Rubaiyat.

The Rubaiyat is a collection of ruba’i or quatrains that would establish Khayyam’s name as a poet centuries later in the West, but the work of poetry would ironically make readers oblivious to the complete man — a polymath: mathematician, astronomer, scientist, philosopher, among many other things. Born eleven years after the death of the great Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Khayyam is considered his intellectual successor.

Although Samarkand is mainly about the imagined fate of The Rubaiyat’s original manuscript, in my mind these all took a backseat to a man whose genius was irrespective of the mode of expression. It made me feel wistful when the novel’s timeline left Omar Khayyam and the 11th century. It feels as if something of myself, sitting in a Persian garden while listening to him speak, remained in Samarkand.

“I am old now and need to know that I have a trusty man at my side — because of the manuscript. That is the most precious thing I possess. In order to take on the world, Hassan-i Sabbah has built Alamut (the Assassins’ fortress), whereas I have only constructed this minuscule paper castle, but I choose to believe that it will outlive Alamut.”

It did. It continues to…

Iran’s Trees

Iran’s trees. The arboreal titles led me to read this as a pair.

The cypress and the greengage now adorn landscapes and orchards around the world, but it was in Persia that they originated; and although these books are not about the history of trees, these sing of the Iranian soul — finding enlightenment through a greengage, or ever-bending like the cypress. 

The Cypress Tree can stand as a refresher or introduction to Iran’s history. Kamin Mohammadi does not make it seem like she is merely listing events chronologically. The melody in her language is retained despite summarizing a civilization and sharply criticizing its rulers.

Of Khomeini, “Hadn’t he dug up the earth in which we thrived and condemned the nutrients that fed our beings as unhealthy, corrupt and un-Islamic?” Of its culture she accurately expresses how, throughout history, it “infiltrates the dominant culture of the invader, transforming it to glory.” Of its food, their day shapes itself around it. Of its language “made so absolutely for amusement and love.”

As cliche as it may sound, this is truly a love letter to Iran — the Iran “not one of mullahs and fundamentalism, but a place of kindness and love, an abundant paradise of mountains and deserts and turquoise seas… not populated by implacable priests and unshaven blood-hungry young men… but where the language even of strangers was affectionate and poetic.”

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is written by none other than the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road, Shokoofeh Azar. 

When it comes to Magic Realism, our favorite Latin American writers come to mind. But this work reminds us that as far as recorded literature goes, this region goes way back to the Arabian Nights and further.

For readers who are not fans of the genre, this can be overwhelming and chaotic. Having read mostly non-fiction in November, it took me a few chapters to adjust and warm up to it. But for those who have the patience for Magical Realism suffused with Persian mythology and superstition, this can be an exceptional experience. It was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, after all.

By chapter 5, you will begin to understand that a dead person is narrating the story. There will be indelible scenes of Khomeini’s death reimagined, of musical instruments and books being burned, of a mother’s heart becoming a graveyard… but the political, the poetic, the evocative, the profound figures of speech, crescendo toward the end, and by then, you will realize that you have a forceful piece of literature in your hands. 

“Write. Write all you remember. The characters in novels, their loves, war, peace; their adventures, hates, betrayals… write down anything you remember from the books.”

I will.

Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell

“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated — each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.

In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains — each wearing its cracked crown of snow — desolate and repudiating stone.

A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.”

And this is only the first page. This year has brought me to the most adventurous prose and most daring forms of the novel, but writing like Durrell’s feels like home.

This is that famous book about Corfu — “not a history but a poem” — where I, already envious of his way with words when he sings about its olives in the middle section, had to close the book and say, “That’s it. I am going to Corfu.”

But this is not merely about a place, but of an irredeemable time and innocent way of life at the brink of the Second World War that we can only relive through the music he makes with his words.

“History with her painful and unexpected changes cannot be made to pity or remember; that is our function.”

Nawal El Saadawi

I did not read these books. I inhaled the force of these books — in big and small gasps, and by the end of the third, I could not part with her. I do not think I can ever part with her. You would want to acquire her strength through osmosis!

She is my writer. Belonging to that rare breed who, even when writing about their lives, call attention to matters beyond themselves. Her words insist that you come out of her books knowing more about yourself, about the world.

Indeed, there are authors whose lives are as intense as their books. Nawal El Saadawi is one of them. Writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist, her eventful life consists of losing her job as Director of Public Health Education due to political pressure, being imprisoned as a vocal critic of President Anwar Sadat and released only a month after his assassination, running for the Egyptian presidency in 2004, appearing on an Islamic fundamentalist death list, and being a potential Nobel laureate in literature until her death in March this year.

When it is Doris Lessing herself who says this is something we should all be reading, what is there left for me to say?

Dalia Sofer: Man of My Time

June 15, 2021

The clues appear unhurriedly through sardonic remarks and thoughts, a twisted streak here and there, and then it suddenly registers. You are inside the mind of an antihero — someone you are not meant to like, but a character necessary for probing into an individual and a nation’s psyche beyond the conventional point of view.

Hamid Mozaffarian carries the cracks of his dysfunctional childhood into adulthood as a broken man and hurts those closest to him.  He becomes an idealistic revolutionary and lands a position as an interrogator for the new regime.  And in what he describes as the germinal act of his downfall, he betrays his own father.

But didn’t his father, under the corrupt regime of the Shah, also betray his closest friend to the dreaded secret police? So we see how the same vein of treachery and weakness course through history, albeit under different regimes.

Yet this is a man who is aware of his brokenness and his faults. Hamid wrestles with himself as he begins to become disillusioned with the Revolution: “How can we become the very beast we combatted? How do we reconcile… what we could have been with what we are becoming?”

“Homemade alcohol, black-market gasoline, glassy-eyed addicts, smugglers, pushers, sweaty men passing the hours in downtown teahouses amid the clatter of saucers and cups, people blindfolded and spirited away only to be distilled later into names on execution lists in newspapers—these things, which I, like others, had been witnessing, flashed in my mind.  These were the makings of an underground parallel city shadowing the so-called pious city above, the scaffolding of a professed republic that like the monarchy preceding it did not dare to look at its own reflection save in a draped mirror. So our revolution had been accomplished, but what of it? And what of us?”

Through the darkness, we see slivers of hope as he attempts to become a better man, but the consequences of his past sins continue to engulf him, and he often allows it to drown him.

Written with the command of a great 20th century existentialist, the clarity with which Dalia Sofer navigates the absurdities of human contradiction and the perplexing intricacies of the Iranian Revolution is astounding. This book, although published in 2020, can make the reader believe that it came from that golden era of novelists who also identified as philosophers and psychologists.

It is a series of painful events, but one passage reduced me to tears. It is when his father dies and leaves him an old edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh with the inscription: “To my son, Hamid, this was my first copy of this timeless tale, which I studied in school, in 1948.  I hope you will one day receive from it all the beauty that I failed to teach you. With love, Sadegh Mozaffarian.”

This is where we grasp Dalia Sofer’s genius in subtleties by alluding to the region’s literary treasures. The Babylonian society in The Epic of Gilgamesh was an Eastern society where community was also most likely upheld over the individual; and where, despite the ephemerality of the individual, his actions are believed to affect not only himself but his community and their collective destiny and history.

Hamid also ponders on the Persian classic, Attar’s The Conference of the Birds — the story where a flock of birds go in search of the mythical bird, the Simorgh. At the end of the life-changing journey, it is only then that they discover that in the Persian language “si” means thirty, and “morgh” means bird. Thirty birds. Together, they find, and together they are, the Simorgh. 

In Sofer’s words, “There is no such thing as a solitary act in family life or in history.” 

For isn’t the dissolution of the individual the downfall of a nation, the same way the betterment of the individual is to a nation’s advantage?

Colum McCann: Apeirogon

October 26, 2021

That the structure becomes a container for the human music.

In an interview about Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… and so that it becomes “a container for the human music”.

Isn’t that the definition of a classic? But isn’t that a most beautiful definition of a classic?

I have not come upon a review that has done this book justice, and I will not attempt to write one; because perhaps it is one of those novels that is done justice only by being read.

Shattered and sobbing by the middle of the book, and yet I come out of this changed and brimming. I had no inkling that form-wise, it would also be one of the most extraordinary I would encounter — and to think I have just been through the Lebanese. Written in 1001 cantos, a nod to A Thousand and One Nights.

You’d think you already know how the story goes; it is based on the real story of two fathers, after all. One Palestinian, one Israeli, whose daughters are killed; one by a rubber bullet, one by suicide bombers. You’d think you already know how the story will be told. Apeirogon will prove you wrong in the most wondrous way.

It is about people who have experienced the profoundest pain but who choose to soften instead of harden their hearts, who have learned the distinction between justice and revenge; people violently nonviolent.

And it is especially for those who are trapped in the thinking that there is only one side, or two sides; for those imprisoned in their convictions that one side is purely evil and one side is purely innocent.

“𝐖𝐞 𝐜𝐚𝐧𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐢𝐦𝐚𝐠𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐡𝐚𝐫𝐦 𝐰𝐞’𝐫𝐞 𝐝𝐨𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐛𝐲 𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐥𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐨 𝐨𝐧𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫.”

This book has many sides. Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. From the Greek word apeiron, which means to be boundless, to be endless. Something that cannot be drawn, it can only be suggested. This book has art, mathematics, music, architecture, literature.

This book is art, mathematics, music, architecture, and literature.

Elias Khoury: Gate of the Sun

October 4, 2021

Gate of the Sun is a steady stream of sorrow flowing for five hundred and thirty one pages.

I can stop there.

But I feel that I have to warn you about those indelible and heartrending parts where a crying baby is suffocated to death to keep him silent so that he would not endanger an entire group; about the pregnant wife of a fedayeen who had to claim she was an immoral woman to protect her husband and keep his whereabouts secret; or of that woman who did not weep with her eyes but with everything inside her… and what if I told you that this novel was inspired by real dialogues between Palestinian exiles and Khoury? I am not sure how my heart was able to bear it.

At this point, you would probably begin to think that this book undoubtedly demonizes Israel. But therein lies the beauty of this magnum opus — despite all the pain it recounts — it does not.

In an interview conducted by an Israeli publication, Khoury articulated, “When I was working on this book, I discovered that the ‘other’ is the mirror of the I. And given that I am writing about half a century of Palestinian experience, it is impossible to read this experience otherwise than in the mirror of the Israeli ‘other.’ Therefore, when I was writing this novel, I put a lot of effort into trying to take apart not only the Palestinian stereotype but also the Israeli stereotype as it appears in Arab literature and especially in the Palestinian literature… The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the ‘other,’ who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”

I think this is important because if this attitude can be applied to one of the most divisive issues in the world, then we can certainly attempt this in our own personal or national conflicts.

We also see this thought being explored in the novel through Khalil, the narrator: “This secret is the mirror. I know no one will agree with me, and they’ll say I talk like this because I’m afraid, but it’s not true. If you’re afraid, you don’t say your enemy is your mirror, you run away from him.”

“But let’s look in the mirror… I confess I’m scared. I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them.”

That last sentence hints at the Holocaust, the forceful catalyst — forgive this terrible oversimplification — that led to the Palestinian exodus. Not blind to the faults of the Palestinians, it also asks this difficult question, “Are we imitating our enemies, or are they imitating their executioners?”

“𝐈𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐬, 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐝𝐞𝐟𝐞𝐧𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐨𝐰𝐧.”

_ _ _

With the anticipated announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7, several people have asked about my projected winner. Aside from thinking myself unqualified to make such a projection, I answered by saying that I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my picks are unlikely to be chosen, because they are not safe choices — Elias Khoury or Nawal El-Saadawi, but she passed away earlier this year, so that leaves Khoury.

But I hope people will not have to wait for Khoury to be awarded the Nobel before they start reading him. After each novel, the Lebanese always leave me asking incredulously, “How was it possible to write a novel that way?!” And yet, Gate of the Sun seems to be the pinnacle of all the Lebanese works I’ve encountered.

Khoury draws the drapes from an incredible window to a way of seeing and storytelling unknown to most of us.

Atiq Rahimi: Three

November 4, 2021

The beautiful preface written by Rahimi for this special edition that holds three of his most well-known novels already made me want to stand up and applaud.

“By writing, I allowed myself to grieve, renouncing revenge; by writing I set sail into history, denouncing terror.”

Atiq Rahimi might be more renowned as a filmmaker, having won awards as a director at Cannes and other film festivals; but he is hands down the best Afghan writer I have read so far. For his literary work, he has been awarded the Prix Goncourt.

Earth and Ashes
“Have the Russians come and taken away everyone’s voice? What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice?”

These lines do not pierce the heart so much until you realize that they are spoken by a young child who was made deaf by the bombings, and he wonders where all the voices have gone.

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear
There is an unbelievable sustained tension from beginning to end, and it is yet another evidence of the unique and gripping way Rahimi unravels a story.

The Patience Stone
I am almost a hundred percent sure that Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun was an inspiration. I have listed the many reasons why in my book journal, but I will spare people the detailed geeking out unless asked. Although it has stark similarities, Rahimi turns his whole piece into something entirely different — a cry about womanhood imprisoned in such a context, and a cry for womanhood in such a culture. In fact, it is written in memory of Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poet savagely murdered by her husband. It is a work for which Afghans accused Rahimi of treason; but it is a homage to women, the victims of what he describes as a “cult of fear”. 

All three, tragedies. All three, realities. But all three, transmuted into great art. 

This book makes tangible a power that only the interdependence of life and art can yield.