The latest issue of the Moroccan magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire includes a profile of me by culture editor Kenza Sefrioui.
Good books write themselves, and this can be said from a small but successful book like Ripley to longer and greater works of literature. If the writer thinks about his material long enough, until it becomes a part of his mind and his life, and he goes to bed and wakes up thinking about it — then at last when he starts to work, it will flow out as if by itself. A writer should feel geared to his book during the time he is writing it, whether that takes six weeks, six months, a year or more. It is wonderful the way bits of information, faces, names, anecdotes, all kinds of impressions that come in from the outside world during the writing period, will be usable in the book, if one is in tune with the book and its needs. Is the writer attracting the right things, or is some process keeping out the wrong ones? Probably it’s a mixture of both.
I’ve been working on my novel for about three years now, and only in the last few months have I seen the characters completely taking over, leading the story. They give me ideas and take me in directions I hadn’t anticipated, and I discover things I had never planned or thought of when I set out to write this book. It’s very joyful–but it took three years to get to this point. (via)
I seem to be having some serious email trouble of late. I’m told that emails to me have bounced back, and I’ve also noticed I get emails two or three days late. So if you have written me and have not received a response, it may be that I never received your message in the first place. Apologies.
Earlier this month, historian Tony Judt was due to speak on “The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy” to a group called Network 20/20, which is comprised of young business leaders and academics from various countries. These meetings are usually held at the Polish consulate, which serves merely as host and not as organizer. The talk was cancelled at the last minute, and a controversy has erupted over the reasons why. Judt maintains that the consulate was threatened by Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, while Foxman and the ADL claim they simply “inquired” into who was organizing the event.
Judt’s lecture was supposed to also include a discussion of Mearsheimer and Walt’s paper “The Israel Lobby,” which inflamed passions when it appeared in the London Review of Books last March. (The authors were accused of anti-semitism, among other things.) Recently, a panel of experts that included Martin Indyk, John Mearsheimer, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Tony Judt, Rashid Khalidi, and Dennis Ross discussed the paper at length in New York, without incident. You can view a video of the event here.
Now the New York Review of Books has published a letter, signed by more than a hundred writers, editors, critics, and academics protesting the ADL’s involvement into Tony Judt’s scheduled lecture at the Polish Consulate. The signatories state: “Though we, the undersigned, have many disagreements about political matters, foreign and domestic, we are united in believing that a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles of debate in a democracy. The Polish Consulate is not obliged to promote free speech. But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle public debate. We who have signed this letter are dismayed that the ADL did not choose to play a more constructive role in promoting liberty.”
For a radically different take you can read Christopher Hitchens’ takedown at Slate.
I was very pleased to see that the latest issue of the New Yorker includes a short story by Daniel Alarcón, “República and Grau.”
Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds. Dawkins asserts that “the presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.” But what possible evidence could verify or falsify the God hypothesis? The doctrine that we are presided over by a loving deity has become so rounded and elastic that no earthly evil or natural disaster, it seems, can come into collision with it. Nor is it obvious what sort of event might unsettle an atheist’s conviction to the contrary.
You should read the whole article.
There’s a great profile of Dutch-Moroccan writer Abdelkader Benali in the Daily Star. The article covers his work as a novelist and playwright–as well as his more recent foray in literary reportage. (Benali was living in Beirut during the Israeli bombing, and wrote about it for Dutch audiences.) One tidbit that resonated with me:
Benali views his job as being to creatively undermine his assigned role.
“In Holland it’s all about belonging to clubs – a running club or a sewing club. I don’t belong to any club,” he says. “People expect me to speak as a Muslim or a Moroccan yet I’m giving you my own opinion. I use my tricks, my language skills, to undermine the role they’ve assigned me.
“The problem is that everything’s connected to Islam. It never really becomes an intellectual discussion because that would invite argument and people don’t want that. Whenever journalists want the ‘Muslim Dutch perspective,’ they never go to an intellectual. They find some old man at a mosque.
This doesn’t surprise me one bit. I was invited to a panel recently, with the express purpose to give “the Muslim perspective.” I said there is no such thing. I can only give my perspective. That didn’t go over so well.
Ahdaf Soueif discusses Palestinian resistance art/art of resistance. A worthwhile read.
A happy and healthy Eid-ul-Fitr to all my Muslim readers. Eid Mubarak.
A few days ago, I received two copies of the Dutch translation of my book, Hoop en andere gevaarlijke verlangens. It was released earlier this month in the Netherlands, and it’s a very handsome edition, with nice, thick paper, and beautiful cover. I am looking forward to my visit to the Netherlands in January, when I will be doing a few public events.
For those of you who live in New York: The NBCC will be hosting a panel about representations of Islam tonight. The speakers are author and historian Tariq Ali and poet and translator Eliot Weinberger, which should be quite interesting. The discussion will be moderated by Rashid Khalidi, who is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia. The event takes place at 7 pm at McNally/Robinson Bookstore (Mulberry and Prince Street in SoHo.) For more information, call (212) 274-1160. And then email me and let me know how it went.
The Literary Saloon (one my favorite blogs) reports that the University of Rouen now offers a full transcript of the manuscript for Madame Bovary. You can see Flaubert’s text as he labored over it: words crossed out, verbs changed; descriptions refined. And you can see various drafts, the final draft, the copy edited version, and the published text of 1873. It’s really quite something.
This is what our living room looks like this morning–empty, except for a rug and a sad-looking plant. We’ve moved some of our furniture to storage, with the rest to go within the next couple of weeks, in preparation for the move eastward. Or westward, if you consider that Al-Maghrib (‘Morocco’) literally means ‘the land of the setting sun.’
I’ve been thinking about endings a lot, lately; I am working simultaneously on the last three chapters of my novel, so I suppose I can’t help seeing, or seeking, closure in other places as well. When I saw my empty living room this morning it made me feel sad, as though my life here in puddletown was coming to an end. But even endings are temporary, I know. Right after I finish these last three chapters, I am going right back to the first chapter and starting over, with the third draft.
Over at the Nation, Maria Margaronis has an excellent piece of commentary on Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel award:
“Pamuk’s Nobel: Deciphering the Code of Silence in Ankara,” read the headline in the Turkish tabloid Hurriyet–a title that could refer equally to a postmodernist reading of Orhan Pamuk’s work, an account of intrigues among Ottoman pashas or a news story about the Turkish president’s failure to congratulate the laureate. Since the Turkish novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature, life has strangely come to resemble one of his fictions. On the day the prize was announced the French national assembly passed a bill making it an offense to deny the Armenian genocide, so that a person can now be prosecuted in France for denying something that it is a crime to assert in Turkey.
French citizens had known vaguely that their colonial authorities were torturing dissidents and suspected terrorists in Algeria, but Mr. Alleg’s essay made that knowledge much more vivid. The French government quickly banned the book’s sale — which, of course, only added to the public frenzy. (The book was legalized in France only after the Algerian war ended, in 1962.)
The Question remains a political touchstone in France, and Mr. Alleg, who is still active in his mid-80s, is a familiar commentator there on the past crimes of French colonialism. But in the English-speaking world, the book has been largely forgotten.
This new edition includes an afterword by Alleg in which he draws comparisons with the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
What do these people have in common? Willie Hulon, head of the FBI’s new national security branch; Rep. Terry Everett (R-Alabama), vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence; and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Virginia), who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Muslim spies. None of them could tell Jeff Stein the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. And we’re now three years into the war in Iraq.
From yesterday morning’s Guardian:
Lecturers and university staff across Britain are to be asked to spy on “Asian-looking” and Muslim students they suspect of involvement in Islamic extremism and supporting terrorist violence, the Guardian has learned.
They will be told to inform on students to special branch because the government believes campuses have become “fertile recruiting grounds” for extremists.
But if lecturers are spying on students, who’s spying on lecturers?
There’s obviously lots and lots of coverage of Orhan Pamuk now that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read Robert McCrum’s anecdote of meeting the then “unknown Turkish novelist” in 1991. Or the interview with Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, where Pamuk describes his development as a writer. Or his reaction to the new French law that makes it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide.
The October 16 issue of the New Yorker has a profile by Jane Kramer of Aboubakr Jamaï, founder, publisher, and editor of the Casablanca-based weekly magazine Le Journal Hebdo. The article is unfortunately not available online, so I can’t link to it. You should check it out, though. It’s generally well researched and quite readable, and gives a good background on Jamaï (or Boubker, as he is known.) Boubker’s magazine has created waves in Morocco for its daring reporting on the three taboos of the press (the king’s private life, Western Sahara, and separation of church and state). His work has cost him several trips to the courthouse, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The quote in the title of this post is from an unnamed source in Kramer’s article who says, “I tell Boubker, ‘Your editorials about the King are like Mercurochrome on a wooden leg.'”
Although I enjoyed the article, I had a couple of problems with it. For starters, the title is “The Crusader.” (I mean, seriously, what was the editor thinking?) And then Kramer adds occasional orientalist comments like: “The King at forty-three is not a statesman, despite a French education.” (Excuse me? So in order to be a statesman one needs a French education?) And when she mentions the women’s rights reform that took place in 2004, she states that Islamists staged a huge demonstration against it in Casablanca, but neglects to add that there was a demonstration in Rabat in favor of the reform. The effect is that one gets the impression that the only political actors on the scene are the king and the Islamists, which is not quite the case.
Scott Anderson’s Vanity Fair article on Egypt is an absolute must-read.
Until a few years ago, no one had heard of the Red Sea Riviera. Perhaps that’s because most of the shiny beach-resort hotels that fall under the marketing label aren’t on the Red Sea at all, but rather on the Gulf of ‘Aqaba, that narrow strip of water which separates the eastern coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula from Saudi Arabia and Jordan. No matter, because it really could be anywhere. From Taba, at the very north end, flush on the border with Israel, all the way down the 125 miles of rugged Sinai coastline to the main tourist resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, the visitor exists in a cocoon of pleasure scrubbed clean of exoticism, the largest gated playground on the planet. Within those gates are five-star hotels and restaurants and world-class scuba-diving, a Hard Rock Cafe, and McDonald’s. Outside those gates is everyone and everything else, a purity maintained by police checkpoints on all roads leading into the enclave. The only Egyptians allowed to enter are those wealthy enough to vacation in the zone, or those who can prove they have jobs there; the others are turned back.
Starting out at the resort, Anderson follows two trails, that of a young man who had been accused of taking part in one of the recent bombings, and that of another young man who briefly worked at the resort, but whose life has been nothing but constant humiliation. Please read the article to the end, here.
Link via The Arabist.
Friday, October 13
Reading and Signing
Powell’s City of Books
1005 W Burnside
If your book club is reading Hope, you may find it relevant that Harcourt has a reading guide online.
This is delightful news: Bangladeshi economics professor Muhammad Yunus has won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, to be shared with Grameen Bank, which he founded. Yunus is credited with inventing micro-credit. I remember watching a documentary about him on PBS a while back–a very soft-spoken man, and a committed activist. But what a difference he has made for Bangladeshi women, and men.
Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, who directed The Battle of Algiers, has passed on, aged 86. The photo below is from the scene in which Colonel Mathieu enters the city with his troops, in order to quell the rebellion. (In real life, the actor Jean Martin staunchly opposed French occupation of Algeria. )
Below is another photo from the film, from a scene where four independence militants are trapped in the casbah. All the actors in the film, with the exception of Martin, were non-professionals. To the right is Brahim Hadjiadj, who plays the role of Ali la Pointe.
When it was released in 1965, the film was banned in France, and several theatres that showed it in Europe were bombed. But the film survived, of course, and has become a classic. Last year, the Criteron Collection released a boxed set of the film, which includes many extras and commentary, by the likes of Mira Nair, Spike Lee, and Julian Schnabel. Pontecorvo will be sorely missed, and I can only hope that the rumors of a Hollywood remake are false.
This week is Fall Fiction Week over at Slate. There’s a great exchange between Gary Shteyngart and Walter Kirn on the future of American fiction, reviews of new books by Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Edna O’Brien, Richard Powers, Lynne Tillman, and Charles Frazier, and a survey of overlooked fiction by bloggers and booksellers. Find out which book I recommended.
This November, in addition to the gubernatorial election, Oregonians have to decide whether to renew the library levy. More than half of the funding for Oregon libraries comes from this levy. The people campaigning against this levy and against funding include Friends for Safer Libraries, whose website describes a library as “a playground of books [that] becomes a minefield of harmful visions.” So now going to the library is like going to Iraq? Anyway, please vote yes on the levy, so that libraries can keep their funding.
Department of I told you so: The 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Orhan Pamuk, “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” It’s clear the judges have been sensitive to all the recent controversies that have been framed as exemplars of an age-old “clash of civilizations,” but they also understand that it’s not an inevitable state, since they’ve at least added the word “interlacing.” And Pamuk himself is not one for essentialist views, as you can see from this lovely essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books in November 2001: “The Anger of the Damned.”
In any case, this is a wonderful and richly deserved distinction, and I couldn’t be more pleased. You can find all of Pamuk’s recent books online or at your favorite bookshop: My Name Is Red, Snow, The White Castle, The Black Book, and his most recent, a memoir, Istanbul: Memories of the City.
Photo: M. Euler/Scanpix
From Joan Didion’s article in the October 5 issue of the New York Review of Books about Vice President Dick Cheney:
It was in some ways predictable that the central player in the system of willed errors and reversals that is the Bush administration would turn out to be its vice-president, Richard B. Cheney. Here was a man with considerable practice in the reversal of his own errors. He was never a star. No one ever called him a natural. He reached public life with every reason to believe that he would continue to both court failure and overcome it, take the lemons he seemed determined to pick for himself and make the lemonade, then spill it, let someone else clean up. The son of two New Deal Democrats, his father a federal civil servant with the Soil Conservation Service in Casper, Wyoming, he more or less happened into a full scholarship to Yale: his high school girlfriend and later wife, Lynne Vincent, introduced him to her part-time employer, a Yale donor named Thomas Stroock who, he later told Nicholas Lemann, “called Yale and told ’em to take this guy.” The beneficiary of the future Lynne Cheney’s networking lasted three semesters, took a year off before risking a fourth, and was asked to leave.
And then there’s this:
Signing statements are not new, but at the time Bill Clinton left office, the device had been used, by the first forty-two presidents combined, fewer than six hundred times. George W. Bush, by contrast, issued more than eight hundred such takebacks during the first six years of his administration. Those who object to this or any other assumption of absolute executive power are reflexively said by those who speak for the Vice President to be “tying the president’s hands,” or “eroding his ability to do his job,” or, more ominously, “aiding those who don’t want him to do his job.”
There are days when I feel completely battered by the news, and have no energy to work, much less to post anything here. And then there are days when even a word like “battered” seems obscene. A new report, released by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, estimates that 650,000 Iraqis have died since 2003. The survey numbers are based on interviews with 1,849 Iraqi households between May and July 2006.
I do not doubt that this figure will be disputed. But it should also be pointed out that the United States itself has not kept track of civilian casualties since the early days of the war and has no counter-number to offer; and that the director of the Baghdad mosque has been quoted, time and again, as saying that the numbers he sees in the press (i.e. about 100 dead per day) do not match the numbers he has in his books.
I’m afraid that once the numbers are dismissed as “politics” (and they already have!), the media will move on. But if these numbers are correct, then the Bush administration may have killed more civilians than Saddam. Shouldn’t this make statisticians run to their calculators and tell us whether the study’s result are accurate? Welcome to the new, liberated Iraq. No one asks questions.