Tablet & Pen by Risa Kahn

Tablet & Pen, an anthology of contemporary Middle Eastern literature, gives insight into this region in a way American media cannot. Reza Aslan, the anthology’s editor, discusses how prose can both bridge dissonant societies and create cultural identities.

Reza Body

The Middle East has long been a regular in American headlines; but during the latter half of 2010, stories involving this region and its cultures permeated our newscasts more than usual. A man in Florida threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11th; a heated controversy ensued over plans to build a mosque at Ground Zero; Iranian President Ahmadinejad paid a tense visit to New York City, while his government was unjustly imprisoning three American hikers—two of whom are still detained.

On the heels of these events comes Tablet & Pen, a book that gives insight into the Middle East in a way newspaper articles or television broadcasts do not. Tablet & Pen was edited by Dr. Reza Aslan, who teamed with Norton to produce a 657-page anthology of contemporary literature from the Middle East. The book is structured chronologically, with each of the nine sections opened by a brief introduction to the time period they cover. Aslan handpicked every poem, short story, novel excerpt, and essay in the anthology, and oversaw the translation of these works from Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, and Persian. Some writers in Tablet & Pen, such as Khalil Gibran and Orhan Pamuk, are widely known, but the majority of names will be new to even the most sophisticated readers. The book’s size and scope are overwhelming, as are many of the subjects these writers capture; but Tablet & Pen is worth everyone’s attention, regardless of how much or how little they know about The Middle East. Though the physical book is indeed handsome, Tablet & Pen is not meant to complement a coffee table or collect dust on a academic bookshelf: it is meant to be read as a story that unfolds over a century.

Aslan has offered the US an extraordinary gift by translating these works into English, and then bringing them together in one cohesive volume. The book’s subject is a region and a people that American media has deluded us into thinking we understand. Aslan believes that art is the most effective gateway to understanding another culture, and recent events show how desperately America needs such a gateway regarding the Middle East. Part of what makes Tablet & Pen such a successful entry-point is its intimacy; the feelings and situations these authors describe add a new dimension to the narrow glimpse into these cultures that American media has delivered to us. Tablet & Pen is a story its authors risked imprisonment to tell, and the book is a testament to the power of language.

Aslan was born in Iran and immigrated to the US shortly after the Iranian Revolution. He is a well-respected scholar on many angles of the Middle East, and currently teaches literature at UC Riverside. He is the author of the best selling No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, as well as How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. I recently sat down with Reza to discuss Tablet & Pen, and issues that emerge from the creation, and subsequent publication, of such a work.

Risa Kahn What sparked the idea for this project?

Reza Aslan Originally the project was brought to me by Words Without Borders. They had this idea to do an anthology on what they called ‘literature from the Muslim world’— by which they meant, start with the Qur’an. I said I would do it, but only under the conditions of making it only [writing from] the Middle East, and making it contemporary— literature from 1910 through 2010. The project took about two years. The majority of that time was just reading, and getting myself familiar with one hundred years of literature from really a really diverse region.

RK And you were in charge of picking what to read and then selecting which pieces to include?

RA Yes. Everything was my decision. I had help from experts on each particular language, whether Arabic, Urdu Persian, or Turkish. I asked those people that if they had to pick the best Turkish (or Urdu, Arabic, Persian) writing from the last century, what they would recommend. They sent me suggestions, and I went with a lot of them. I also wanted to do something a bit unexpected; so with someone like Khalil Gibran, a poet that you would expect to be in an anthology like this, I published an essay instead of a poem.

RK Do you think the book could be enjoyed without any historical knowledge, or out of its historical context? Your prologues to each section are very brief.

RA I wrote it for somebody who knows nothing at all about the Middle East. I wanted to stay out of it as much as possible and let the pieces themselves tell the story. In the openings [of each section] I provide the most basic skeletal outline of historical context needed.

Tablet And Pen Cover Homepage

RK Can you talk more about what Words Without Borders does?

RA It’s an organization that takes literature from all over the world, in every language you could imagine, and buys the rights to the pieces and has them professionally translated by other writers—not by linguists. Then, those pieces are put on www.wordswithoutborders.org, so they can be enjoyed, for free, by English speakers all over the world. We also provide education materials for high school students to get them familiar with literature around the world, in an attempt to make them global citizens. Literature is a window into cultures in a way that few other things are.

RK Has Words Without Borders done other offline projects in addition to this anthology?

RA Yes. There’s an anthology on East German writing called The Wall in My Head, and one on literature from the ‘Axis of Evil’—writing from North Korea, Iran and Iraq. What we wanted to do with Tablet and Pen was to create something unique, something that would have a long life in academia—the anthology could serve as a textbook for a course on the Middle East—but also, an anthology that you would find at the front table of a Barnes and Noble (which I recently did, by the way). Norton fortunately had the same idea, and they put together a really beautiful looking book. I committed to using the platform that I have in order to get some attention for it. And it’s worked—there have been great reviews in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. For a while, the book was number 70 on Amazon.com, which is ridiculous for any anthology, let alone one on Middle Eastern literature.

RK Honestly, the response has shocked me.

RA Yes, the response has shocked everyone. I wanted to write an anthology that you would read like a book, something that felt like one sustained narrative that you could follow from beginning to end. But I also wanted to see if you can use literature to build bridges between cultures and between peoples, and whether the anthology could be used as a different kind of window into this world that has been characterized in very specific ways. At the opening event for the book, I read a poem by Zakariyya Tamir [of Syria], written after the 1967 war. There were two Israelis in the audience, and after they came up to me and said how amazing it [the poem] was, and how they had never thought that people on the ‘other side’ could think and write like that. I told them that’s because they were only listening to the journalists and the political leaders. Really, the only people that have the ability to not just hold a mirror up to society, but to really speak truth in the Middle East are the artists, the writers, the musicians. It’s not just this touchy-feely thing about art and literature and building bridges; it’s quite a real phenomenon.

RK The publication date of the book, November 8th 2010, is quite perfect; I think there’s this general curiosity being sparked by some really recent political events that is forcing people to wonder exactly who these people, that we constantly hear about on the news, actually are. It might seem elementary, but can you explain the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Arab’? I think a lot of people use them incorrectly and don’t know it.

RA ‘Arab’ refers to an ethnic community, and Islam [Muslim] is a religion. What happens quite often in the US is that those two things become conflated—which is understandable, but is detrimental to understanding either. Arabs make up only 12% of the world’s Muslims. The Arab world is no longer the center of the Islamic world. Of the ten most populated Muslim countries, I think only two of them, Egypt and Algeria, are Arab. That gives you a sense of the population shifts that are taking place. It sounds silly to have to explain.

RK Definitely, but the idea that only 12% of Arabs are Muslim is something a lot of people might be surprised by.

RA Yes. You have to understand that Muslim and Christian and Jewish aren’t just religious faiths; they’re identities. In America we talk about religion like it’s just a personal, confessional experience; but its not. America is a country where 70% of the population identifies as Christian. Mostly what they are talking about is the way they view the world. It’s a matter of identity, not belief—that’s the important thing to understand about all religions. So when I say that 20% of Arabs are Christians and 80% are Muslim—that doesn’t mean 20% go to church on Sundays and 80% go to mosques on Fridays. The easiest way to think about religion in the modern world is to think about it in terms of identity.

RK Which is such a foreign concept to me. I was in Israel this summer, telling my cousin how much I enjoyed not being in the US. He said, “You should move here! You should make Aliyah! [the term for a Jew who immigrates to Israel]” I told him I didn’t really consider myself Jewish, and he said, “What are you talking about? Your blood! Of course you are Jewish!” I had no idea what he was talking about.

RA You just experienced, in an intimate way, the entire conflict of Jewish identity in the 20th century—whether you feel Jewish or not, “Jewish” is not your citizenship, and what [he’s saying] is to make it your citizenship. That’s something Americans aren’t used to. Christianity isn’t someone’s citizenship.

RK Can you also talk about the terms ‘Middle East’ and ‘The Orient’?

RA The term ‘Middle East’ is a constructed word, something that colonialists made up to define the land between the Far East and Europe. I included Turkey and South Asia in the book, even though a lot of Turkish or South Asians would say, “We’re not part of the Middle East!” What I’m doing is sort of co-opting the colonial conception of this region as ‘The Orient’, [which means] that which is different than us. There’s something that binds this community together that’s not ethnicity, not culture, not religion, not language—it’s this historical consciousness that permeates the literature of this region, whether it’s written in Persian or Arabic or Turkish or Urdu. That’s the connection I wanted to make.

RK I think that comes through very strongly in the book. While each section is diverse in many ways, all the pieces within do have a common thread to them. I did sense this one particular theme running through the book as a whole: this tie to land, and this fight to not necessarily keep it, but—

RA To define it.

RK Yes.

RA For the most part, these were countries created by outsiders. The notion that you can use literature to create a firm national identity, to define what it means to be Turkish, Arab, Persian, or Pakistani—that, I think, is the theme that comes out the loudest.

RK I think that’s another idea very foreign to people in the US—this tie to the physical land that we live on. Our attachment to it is minimal, compared to the people of these regions.

RA Yes, it’s part of their consciousness, part of their identity.

RK What’s the significance of the anthology’s title?

RA It’s the name of the introductory poem of the book, by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The way the poem ends, “Let others live for the calm indifferent peace/I listen to earth’s pangs, and will not cease”—it’s about the writer as a revolutionary, the writer as a journalist, the writer as historian. The idea that all I need is this tablet and this pen, and I will never cease to fight against the calm indifference of the world.

RK That’s a great segway into the book’s first essay, “The Future of the Arabic Language”, where Khalil Gibran talks about language and writing as a political tool. Can you further describe the points the author made in this piece, as I think it’s one of the most important in the anthology.

RA Gibran’s piece is a manifesto to all the writers of the Middle East to stop imitating the West and instead to create an indigenous literary tradition, one uniquely Middle Eastern. It is also a call about using literature as a means of forming national identity. So in a sense, it sets up the major themes of the book perfectly.

RK Another piece I really liked was “Gharbzadegi”, by Jalal Al-e Ahmad, which discusses this idea of ‘Westoxification’.

RA What’s funny about Jalal Al-e Ahmad is that he was a western-educated intellectual, and I think the notion of the West as a disease was something that really caught on after he wrote this. What the piece is referring to it is what we nowadays would call ‘Western Cultural Hegemony’, or ‘McDonaldization’—but “Gharbzadegi” was written in the 1960s. It’s one of my favorite pieces. The point Ahmad is making is that the difference between East and West—or the Middle East, and Europe and America—is not about culture or even about technology. It’s [the difference] between empty stomachs and full stomachs.

RK So when it was published, what was the response?

RA He was persecuted by the Iranian government and spent a lot of time in jail; as most of these guys did. But his tract was instrumental in what happened 20 years later; not just Ahmad, but a lot of his colleagues in the ’50s and ’60s, laid that intellectual groundwork for the Iranian Revolution.

RK Can you talk about the reading environment in the Middle East?

RA In Iran it’s remarkable. The literacy rate for women is 89%, compared to 90% in the US. 60% of the college degrees go to women. It’s a very literate, sophisticated population. They read everything. A lot of American writers that are really popular there are the Tom Paines, the Ben Franklins, the Thomas Jeffersons. They love that kind of writing because it’s the notion of the very foundation of the democratic experience. Iranians, even those who are totally disaffected by what’s going on in the country, feel that there’s something special happening around them, that there is a battle taking place to redefine what democracy could possibly be. Turkey also has a very sophisticated population, and an incredibly robust literary community. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the Arab world. The United Nations Development Programme came out with a devastating critique about literature in the Arab world, particularly translated literature. It was something to the effect that there are more books published in a month that are translated into Spanish for Spain, than there are in a year in the entire Arab world. It’s a really bad situation, and not a lot of work is being done [to improve it]. The literature community there, despite its enormous tradition and history, is faint.

RK Say a person living in one of these countries writes something that he wants published. What is that process like?

RA There are, in parts of these countries, a flourishing publishing industry; but unless you can get your work translated, your audience will be very limited. Until quite recently, the US Treasury Department forbade the translation of Iranian work into English. I was part of a group that challenged that law and got it repealed. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner, couldn’t publish her memoirs in Persian because the Iranian authorities censored it. So, she went to publish it in English. Random House bought it, translated it, and then discovered there’s a million dollar fine and a ten year prison sentence for doing that. So, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who won the prize for challenging the regime that America hates and wants to bring down, the regime that finds what this author is writing so objectionable that they won’t publish it, and this woman wants to publish it in English and America is saying NO? That’s absurd. That law is part of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and it forbade translating works from sanctioned countries. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, [the law] just doesn’t make any sense.

I thought, as a joke, to put an asterisk by every author [in the anthology] that had done time in prison. It’s a testament to the power literature can have. It can throw a writer behind bars.

RK It’s a compliment, in a sense—your topic, and the way that you’re conveying it, can be that threatening. So, if an author does find a translator, I was curious about how Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian translate into English. Translation is always tough, but are there pitfalls specific to these languages?

RA Yes, especially with regard to poetry. In Arabic, the verb is the first word in the sentence. And in Persian, the verb is the last word in the sentence. Persian allows for these really wonderful tricks to be played with language, and that’s part of what makes this the greatest poetry in the world. If you are writing verses and the last word in a sentence is the verb, rhyming is pretty easy. But when you go to translate it—how do you do that? You can’t keep it in rhyming couplets and still maintain any kind of fluidity. It’s very complicated. What we tried to do with all of these translations is to have poets translate poetry, and fiction translators translate fiction.

RK So you were emphasizing keeping the style, instead of a word for word translation?

RA Absolutely. We had really remarkable translators to work with, and they allowed us to be able to provide the most accurate and poetic translations of these works available in English.

RK I recently interviewed Ammiel Alcalay, who put together an anthology of writing by Jews of non-western origin called Keys to the Garden. The writers were so unknown outside of that many of them didn’t even know each other. He published the book in America, and he said the project wasn’t something he did so much for the writers, as it was a kind of intervention in America, a challenge to it. Does that statement resonate with you in regards to Tablet and Pen?

RA That’s precisely the point of this book. I’m proud of the fact that 20% of the writers [included the anthology] had never been translated [into English] before, and that about 50% are writers that even people with a strong background in literature have most likely never heard of. I’m very proud to introduce these writers to an American audience, but my primary goal with this book was to reframe the perceptions of this region. We only ever hear about the religion and politics of it. It’s the only two lenses with which we discuss this region. Those are important lenses, certainly, but when it comes to getting to the heart of the matter, to being able to connect to the people of this region in an intimate way? Literature and the arts are much more effective means to create connections between the peoples and cultures of the West and the peoples and cultures of the East.

RK For some, the size and scope of the book might be a little intimidating. We’ve been talking about the arts as a gateway—if a person wanted to know more about this culture but felt literature inaccessible, could you recommend any movies or music he could use as a different entry point into these regions and peoples?

RA Yes, I do think we get to know each other through music and film, as well as literature. Film-wise, the possibilities are almost infinite: Amreeka, made in the US, or Paradise Now, made in Palestine. Iran has the most celebrated film industry in the developing world. Getting to know Iran through its film is a great idea. Music is also huge—hip-hop, punk rock, heavy metal—these are really significant genres of music in the Middle East in a way that they aren’t in America. Punk music here can make the Top 40, whereas it’s still a very underground culture in the Middle East. There’s DAM, a Palestinian hip-hop act hugely popular in Israel. In Iran there’s Yas, who’s awesome. Junoon, a Pakistani rock band, has probably sold more albums than U2—they’re globally famous, but not that big in America.

RK I’ve read a number of interviews you’ve done recently, and you’ve made some really strong points in all of them. Are there any questions you’ve been hoping someone would ask you, or any idea that you’ve wanted to talk about more?

RA In an interview, I was asked, “What’s your dream for this book?” And I said, “Truly and honestly, my dream is to come up with all-Persian, all-Urdu, all-Arabic, and all-Turkish versions of this book. To take all the writings, put them into Persian and sell them in Iran … To put them all in Turkish, and sell them in Turkey … To challenge those societies to read each other more. To say, “Here’s all this literature from your neighbors.” That’s a real dream.

Tablet & Pen is available now from W. W. Norton.

Risa Kahn is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She previously worked in the art book publishing industry, and now spends her time rediscovering the joys of public libraries.

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