Archive for August, 2010

Quotable: Agha Shahid Ali

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

The waning days of August have brought with them another bout of nostalgia–I keep thinking of childhood summers in Rabat. And in honor of those, I thought I’d share this poem by Agha Shahid Ali, “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi”

At Purana Qila I am alone, waiting
for the bus to Daryanganj. I see it coming,
but my hands are empty.
“Jump on, jump on,” someone shouts,
“I’ve saved this change for you
for years. Look!”
A hand opens, full of silver rupees.
“Jump on, jump on.” The voice doesn’t stop.
There’s no one I know. A policeman,
handcuffs silver in his hands,
asks for my ticket.

I jump off the running bus,
sweat pouring from my hair.
I run past the Doll Museum, past
headlines on the Times of India
building, PRISONERS BLINDED IN A BIHAR
JAIL, HARIJAN VILLAGES BURNED BY LANDLORDS.
Panting, I stop in Daryaganj,
outside Golcha Cinema.

Sunil is there, lighting
a cigarette, smiling. I say,
“It must be ten years, you haven’t changed,
it was your voice on the bus!”
He says, “The film is about to begin,
I’ve bought an extra ticket for you,”
and we rush inside:

Anarkali is being led away,
her earrings lying on the marble floor.
Any moment she’ll be buried alive.
“But this is the end,” I turn
toward Sunil. He is nowhere.
The usher taps my shoulder, says
my ticket is ten years old.

Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, alone, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.

The poem appears in his collection The Half-Inch Himalayas. You can find out more about Agha Shahid Ali here.

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The Pakistan Floods

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I feel I have yet to fully apprehend the devastation in Pakistan. The papers say there are 1,600 dead, 2 million homeless, and as many as 14 million affected by the floods. But the numbers, as always, don’t tell the whole story. The monsoon season is not over yet, it’s exceedingly difficult to get help to all those who need it, and the country has received little foreign relief. (The British charity Oxfam, for instance, says that donations to flood relief represent about $3 a person, compared to $495 per person after the Haiti earthquake.)

If you have not already done so, please donate to the relief effort in Pakistan. Here is a list of charities that work there.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

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The Half-Known World

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

So far this year, I’ve read thirty-four books—novels, memoirs, biographies, academic stuff—but only one book on the craft of writing. I don’t really like how-to books on fiction, because too many of them come equipped with check lists of things you should do in order to write. But this particular book was great: The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell. It’s a collection of essays that address different aspects of writing and, for me at least, offer a few new ways of looking at literary fiction. The title essay, for instance, makes an excellent argument against knowing everything about a particular character or world.

It should be no surprise that the fully known worlds presented on television and in commercial movies are populated by stereotypes. To call a character a type is to say that he’s so true to a group of characters that he is indistinguishable from all the others in that group. Here’s another definition of stereotype: any character that is fully known.

I met Boz in 2006, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I was a fellow and he was my faculty mentor. (He was smart, funny, and generous, and I will forever be grateful to him.) The lecture he delivered at the conference that year was called “Process and Paradigm.” It’s included in this collection. So if you’re looking for a good book on craft, try this one. It’s good.

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Park51 and the Silenced Majority

Monday, August 9th, 2010

I want to know: what would the GOP do if it didn’t have Muslims to gripe about ahead of the November elections?

In the last three weeks, Glenn Beck mounted a campaign against “Muslim Family Day” at a Three Flags theme park in New Jersey, because that day fell on September 12th, which, of course, can only mean that Muslim evil-doers are plotting to offend the American people. (Never mind that Muslim Family Day started in 2000, that its chief organizer died in the World Trade Center attacks, and that the only reason it fell on September 12 this year is because it is the date of Eid.) In Temecula, California, a group of Tea Partiers called for a rally against a planned mosque and suggested to its participants that they bring dogs, because dogs are considered by some Orthodox Muslims to be unclean. And in Florida, a pastor wants to set up an International Burn a Quran Day on September 11, because he believes, and I quote, that “Islam is of the devil.”

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article that recaps the recent spate of anti-Muslim demonstrations and focuses more specifically on the opposition to the Park51 project, which, in case you have been hiding under a rock, is otherwise (and incorrectly) known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” The article quotes both proponents and opponents of the project, which gives the reader the appearance of balance. But in fact it silences the vast majority of Muslims. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.

But they have not gone unanswered. In each community, interfaith groups led by Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, rabbis and clergy members of other faiths have defended the mosques. Often, they have been slower to organize than the mosque opponents, but their numbers have usually been larger.

Notice that, in setting up the two groups of proponents and opponents of Park51, the Muslims who get mentioned are “former Muslims”, while the people who bravely stand up for religious freedom include ministers of every faith, except Islam. Are we to believe that no Muslims, whether ministers or not, are taking part in these interfaith groups, even though the matter at hand is an Islamic community center?

I see this kind of silencing everywhere in our media. Politicians constantly talk about the need for “moderate Muslims” to step up, and when they do, as Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf did when he tried to set up this community center, it is the extremists among Muslims—both the religious and the secular—who are given ample room to voice their opinions. Enough.

Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters/New York Times

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