Of all the reasons why we read, the one that binds us most is empathy. Literature offers a means of imagining ourselves inside the “other”, feeling their stories and inhabiting their narratives. Such an “other” might be your next-door neighbor or someone a world away. What matters is that once we’ve made that interior connection, we can never see them solely as the “other” again.
That sense of literature as connective is the animating spirit of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East, a 600-plus page anthology that takes a broad view of 20th-century Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Pakistani history and culture through the filter of the written word. Edited by Reza Aslan, the Iranian-born author of 2005’s No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, the book uses the work of 69 writers to make a strong case for the power of fiction, poetry, and essays to connect us at the level of the heart. “If the purpose of literature is to provide a window into other worlds,” Aslan notes, “then the individual pieces collected in this anthology are mere porthole glimpses into the kaleidoscopic world of the modern Middle East.”
Aslan, who teaches creative writing at UC Riverside, brings a historian’s vision to Tablet & Pen, arranging the collection in three chronological sections and geographically within them. The idea, he tells us, is to create “not an anthology to be tasted in disparate bits but rather a single sustained narrative to be consumed as a whole.” As a starting point, he picks the Lebanese American Khalil Gibran, perhaps the father of contemporary Arab literature, and a name not unknown to Western readers, many of whom have at least a passing acquaintance with the philosophical essays of Gibran’s “The Prophet”.
Here, we see Aslan’s strategy: to offer recognizable points of identification while challenging our assumptions about the work and its meaning. After all, the Gibran of these pages is not the ethereal writer we may recall. His “The Future of the Arabic Language” (2010) is nothing less than a call to arms. “(T)he future of the Arabic language is tied to the presence or the absence of invention in all the countries that speak Arabic,” he declares in an essay that links literature not just to social development but also to national identity.
One of the fundamental questions Tablet & Pen seeks to address is how the words we use and the stories we tell shape our points of view. It’s particularly important in a territory such as the Middle East, where generations of colonization have created overlays that impose Western sensibilities and values with no real notion of the cultures they displace. “I say that Gharbzadegi” — a word that means “Westoxification” or “Weststruckness,” Aslan explains in a footnote — “is like cholera”, the Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad writes in a 1962 commentary, adding: “The basic thesis of this short essay is that we’ve not been able to retain our own cultural/historical personality during our encounter with machines and in the face of their inevitable assault.”
Ahmad’s argument represents a turning point in Tablet & Pen, the first explicit call to something resembling revolution, a stand against the encroachment of the West. The essay is also one of the real discoveries of the collection, not least for how it equally opposes fundamentalism with its desire to turn back the clock. “Gharbzadegi is a characteristic of a period of time when we have not become familiar with the prerequisites for machines — meaning the new sciences and technology,” Ahmad claims, arguing for industrialization, modernization, for the development of a culture that can seize the future instead of the past.
The tension between colonialism and insularity is a recurring theme throughout Tablet & Pen. It emerges not only in essays but also in fiction, such as in Iranian short-story writer and playwright Sadeq Chubak‘s allegorical “The Baboon Whose Buffoon Was Dead”, in which a clown’s baboon, loose in the world after the death of his master, lacks the tools with which to enjoy his freedom; or writer Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh’s subtly rendered “Persian Is Sugar”, in which a young man, detained at an Iranian port, finds himself equally confounded by the sophistry of a fellow prisoner in Western clothing and the empty platitudes of an aged sheikh.
“As soon as Ramazan saw that I really and truly understood the vernacular and that I was even speaking honest-to-God Persian with him,” recounts Jamalzadeh’s narrator, who is also in the holding cell, “he grabbed my hand and kissed it as if there were no tomorrow. He got so excited that you would think he had just inherited the earth.” In a landscape caught between opposing ideologies, hearing another person speak the truth can be the most profound revelation.
This, of course, is what literature does — tell the truth, no matter what. Yet it also recognizes that truth is elusive, metaphorical, and subjective, especially in cultures where the price for direct speech is often breathtakingly high. As Aslan comments throughout the collection, many writers here spent time in prison, targeted by the societies they sought to help construct. That’s both a bitter irony and a reminder of exactly what’s at stake.
Syrian writer Zakariyya Tamir’s “The Enemies” unfolds as a series of 26 pointedly comic observations (“‘No lying now!’ said the detective to the baby in the cradle. ‘Tell us everything you know about your companions.'”), while Houshang Golshiri‘s remarkable “My China Doll” presents the stream-of-consciousness narration of a young Iranian girl wondering about her father’s fate, who has been taken away for reasons she does not know. “Mommy says he’s coming back,” Golshiri writes. “I know that he’s not coming back. If he were coming back, Mommy wouldn’t be crying, would she?” Such a story operates on personal and political terms, drawing us in by lowering our defenses, using the girl’s emotions to make larger points about terror and oppression, and opening up the center of this world.
Other contributors to Tablet & Pen are Naguib Mahfouz, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Sadegh Hedayat, whose 1937 novel The Blind Owl, excerpted here, is one of the most iconic works of 20th-century Arabic literature. The real tour de force, though, wasn’t even written for the page but comes transcribed from a spoken word performance — Iraqi poet Mozaffar Al-Nawwab’s “Bridge of Old Wonders”, an extended diatribe, by turns vitriolic and scabrously funny, that touches on all the collection’s major themes.
“What wonders Arab oil has done for us!” Al-Nawwab exclaims, “We belch to the point of indigestion from hunger / While the Oil King is afraid of rats getting at his cash / And the West, in all its wondrous nuclear superiority and perfection, / gathers us for oil, and slaughters all of us for oil.”
Talk about empathy: It’s hard not to relate to such emotions, to a voice so unrestrained. This is the triumph of Tablet & Pen – it connects us at the level of our humanity, no matter where we may be from.