Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

August 25, 2021

From what I gather, Alamut is a literary anomaly.

It is also here that great writing intersects with my fascination for Iran.

But first, the trivia:
— This novel became an inspiration for Assassin’s Creed, although it was published long before the era of video games.
— It was written in 1938, after Slovenian Vladimir Bartol spent ten years of extensive research on the Assassins, as a response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
— Bartol intended to dedicate the first edition to Benito Mussolini, but it goes without saying that no publisher would have allowed that.
— The nature of the book is frightening that it led a recent reviewer from L’Express in France to write, “If Osama bin Laden did not exist, Vladimir Bartol would have invented him.”

_ _ _

While there are many myths surrounding the Order of the Assassins who inspired terror from 1090 to 1275, it is agreed among historians that no enemy of theirs ever managed to evade their daggers. The fanaticism of their followers readily willing to die for their cause became legendary. They felled viziers, emirs, and caliphs, shaped the entire political landscape in the region according to their conceits, and held the reins of power for almost two hundred years. Their most mighty fortress stood in Iran, the “Eagle’s Nest,” the impregnable Alamut. 

_ _ _

Engrossing, tragic, and rife with philosophy, Bartol also plays on the myths, but this novel is essentially a chilling warning against charismatic leaders who test the limits of human blindness, against ideologies that have the ability to manipulate minds and emotions and subsequently annihilate logical thought. 

“…𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘱𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘨𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘕𝘰𝘵 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘭𝘬 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴, 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘢 𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘯 𝘶𝘯𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘵𝘩.”

It is both unsettling and incredible how a novel set in the 11th century, written in 1938, reads like a warning written specifically for our generation.

Orhan Pamuk

November 2022

My Name is Red was unlike anything I had ever read that it drove a scimitar across my consciousness sixteen years ago. Its literary mischief, its bursts of color, and its contemplations on art and style ushered me into a whole new world of literature.

Since then I have been looking for the Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. I admit that I even looked for the actual Pamuk and visited his Museum of Innocence, on the European side of that wondrous city straddling two continents, with the hope of bumping into him.

I never seemed to encounter that Pamuk again but I would instead go on to discover other aspects of him, other aspects of the city so inextricably entwined with his soul, and other aspects of myself.

As serendipity would have it, his books have been present in life’s significant moments to vivify specific memories. On the way back home from Turkey in 2016 and while inside a cafe waiting for someone, I attempted to finish reading Istanbul in Manila. I soon found out that the book would not exactly become a favorite — the consolation is that the person I waited for would be.

While I cannot say that every single work by Pamuk wholly appeals to me, he bottles the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the textures, the realities, and the melancholies of Turkey; and allows me to be, as he would say, “In possession of another world”.

Pamuk has, in some measure, shaped my mindscape, and I would have remained a much poorer reader and traveler had I not stumbled across that mass market paperback copy of My Name is Red one fateful day at the Fully Booked branch at Greenhills Promenade. I have since upgraded my editions to two different trade paperbacks and then to hardcover, re-reading it each time a new edition fell into my hands.

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.” — Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Nights of Plague

November 2022

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about present-day Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, and revolutions, nationalism, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Other Colors

“Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps of life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things — the things that make us curious about life, about the world — can be first ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them.”

The White Castle (a re-reading)

June 2021

Fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

A Strangeness in My Mind

February 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute. It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

Ayse Kulin: Last Train to Istanbul

October 9, 2021

A friend who has been to Turkey and Iran, and who is enamored with these places as much as I am, left this book inserted between the finials of our gate last Monday. “It’s hard to put that book down,” he followed up with a message.

Turkey has always been at the crossroads of history, but this book is a perceptive look into the inner lives of the Turkish people and their nation’s place in the world particularly amid the Second World War.

It calls to mind how, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, Turkey provided a refuge for the 250,000 Jews banished by Spain in the 1490s and how a whole district in Istanbul was allocated to them. 

The characters echo this magnanimous era by plotting the escape of a handful of Jews via the “Last Train to Istanbul” from Paris. This musician’s heart fell for its musical passages. It is thrilling and touching in many ways, and I was impressed to learn, by the end of the book, that it is based on the experiences related by Turkish diplomats who were posted in Europe during WWII. 

It’s hard to put this down.

Elif Shafak: The Island of Missing Trees

October 12, 2021

“You don’t fall in love in the midst of a civil war, when you are hemmed in by carnage and by hatred on all sides… You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974… and yet there they were…”

Yes, this novel is about a love that blossomed in Cyprus. A forbidden love between a Greek boy and a Turkish girl in that island country that cradles Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world — split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

But if you have been reading the author for some time, you know that she transcends her pretty book covers, and usually gives voice to those who do not have any, and calls attention to an abundance of topics and pressing issues; and you get the inkling that it cannot be entirely about love.

Aside from being delighted that a favorite poem of mine, Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy, features significantly in the story, this novel moved me so much more than I thought it would. I feel that this is where Elif Shafak has achieved a balance of the elements: culture, tradition, superstition, history, loss, grief, relationships, home, migrations, nationalism, violence, fear, mental health, feminism, eco-consciousness, intergenerational memory and trauma, inherited pain, the histories and stories in families that affect the next generation… 

Matters seemingly impenetrable to language, and yet they are carried out — narrated by a fig tree! 

Naturally, a fig tree. Can it possibly be Elif Shafak without the whimsy? And yet this is a wise fig tree who might, at length, aid the reader in understanding… what these Ithakas mean.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

October 19, 2021

“Things We Fear” — As soon as I learned about the Ex Libris (book club) theme for this month, I immediately took Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad from my shelf. Not a fan of the horror genre, it is one of the few I own that seems closely related to the theme.

I have this book because it is written by an Iraqi and therefore part of my current reading project.

Set in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, the novel is a winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a finalist of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. However, it took me a while to process how I felt about it.

A couple of passages eventually led me to conclude that this walking corpse, stitched up from different body parts of victims of violence, is the author’s grim portrait of what it means to be an Iraqi today: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks.”

“The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it.”

I think the novel is powerful in its own way, and it did give me goosebumps on the last page — but it did not really scare me.

So… If we did not have the power outage today that made me miss the book session, I would have presented The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak instead. 

Because, come on! Love is already scary enough! How much more if you add Forty Rules to it? Haha!

Finished only on the third attempt as a humorous attempt to present something “scary” in a bookclub session, I feel conflicted because it features a lot of what I am currently interested in — a time and place where the Crusades and Mongol conquests intersected, a time of Assassins and Mamluks, and basically the time when Rumi lived! I enjoyed the historical details but not so much the parts where the prose got syrupy and saccharine. It has its own beauty, but I think another reader might fare better.

Elif Shafak: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

October 22, 2021

“It is mostly through stories that we learn to think, perceive, feel and remember the world in a more nuanced and reflective way. As we gain a better understanding of the struggles of people from different backgrounds, and start to imagine lives beyond the one we are living, we recognize the complexity and richness of identities and the damage we do to ourselves and to others when we seek to reduce them to a single defining characteristic.”

“If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen.”

“…we have become bad listeners and even worse learners. Whether in public or digital spaces nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. Instead there are clashing certainties… They are not there to listen and they are not there to learn.”

“If and when I am a reluctant listener, I will also become a poor learner. I will interact less and less with theories and opinions that do not agree with mine. And there will come a point when I will simply stop talking to people who are different from me.”

“When coexistence is undermined in this way societies become extremely polarized and bitterly politicized, ever wary of the ‘other side and their intentions’. Democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation, conflict resolution and pluralism, a system of checks and balances, suffers from this constant tension and escalating antagonism… It is not a coincidence that all across the world authoritarian demagogues go to great lengths to incite and inflame polarization. They know they will benefit from it.”

Written by Elif Shafak during the pandemic and reading this amidst the cacophony of the Philippine political menagerie, this little book cannot be more relevant.

What if we can transform this age of division into an age of reading, connecting, engaging, listening, learning, examining our assumptions and stereotypes, expanding our minds, and softening our hearts? Who is willing?

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?