Exile and the Kingdom

April 28th, 2011

I spent last weekend camping in Death Valley. Actually, “camping” isn’t quite the right word for it, since we had an air mattress, pillows, foldable chairs, and—luxury of luxuries—fresh coffee. But we slept in a tent, we went on several hikes, and I didn’t do any work, so that counts for something. I’ve had a hard time coping with being back, though—not just because of the mountain of mail and email that was waiting for me, but because the news lately has been unrelentingly terrible.

Then today, I heard about the bomb at the Argana cafe in Marrakech, in the middle of the day, just when the place was packed with people. The last time I was in Marrakech, in 2007, I had tea at the Argana, which overlooks the famed Jemaa el-Fna square. I remember that, walking out of the cafe late in the day, I was accosted by a soothsayer who insisted on telling me my fortune. The cards, she said, were very good; they were full of promise, and my promise got even better after I tipped her. This was an anecdote I considered amusing, something I might have told friends at dinner, to joke about how a good tip can give you a good future, but today I thought about it and it seemed completely bittersweet to me.

I remember walking around the square and helping an American friend buy her first tagine set. I remember haggling over the price of a carriage ride, which would take my friend out of the square to see the ocher walls of the city. I remember the meloui I had for breakfast on my last day, how the honey on it was laced with the taste of lavender. I remember so much. And then I think how useless my memories are. It was Camus, wasn’t it, who wrote that the sorrow of exiles is to live with a memory that serves no purpose. That is how I feel.

Greg Mortenson and the Business of Redemption

April 20th, 2011

Is there a nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education? Greg Mortenson’s memoir Three Cups of Tea has given an unequivocal answer to this question, though this week it has also shown just how unquestioningly people want to believe stories of redemption. Three Cups of Tea tells the story of how Mortenson was nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. As a way to repay the villagers’ kindness, Mortenson promises to return to and build a school for the children. The book recounts how the charity he founded, the Central Asia Institute, went on to build dozens of schools in the region.

Three Cups of Tea became an international bestseller, as well as required reading in many schools and colleges in the United States. Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, received millions of dollars in donations, including $100,000 from President Obama. But last week, a 60 Minutes investigation revealed that the central anecdote in the book—the author being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after being separated from his party—wasn’t exactly true. Though he climbed K2, Mortenson didn’t come across the Pakistani village of Korphe until a year later. And he was not, as the book asserts, kidnapped by the Taliban. More troublingly, some of the schools he claims to have built were never built at all.

The revelations immediately ignited a firestorm of reactions. Readers took to Amazon.com to vent their rage. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” read one review. “Another huckster, another charlatan. This makes me sick,” read another. They were, understandably, feeling cheated because they were lied to. But perhaps they need to ask themselves why they were so willing to believe this unlikely story in the first place: because Three Cups of Tea offered them a thoroughly familiar paradigm—Eastern women are in need of Western saviors.

Readers who may not know much about the political situation in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, still know, based on images they see on television, that the situation of women is disastrous. Three Cups of Tea reaffirmed that message, and provided a savior in the form of Mortenson. But what about women’s organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Why are they not part of this picture of empowerment of women? These questions are not directly addressed in these kinds of discussions, because, by definition it seems, Afghan and Pakistani women are victims, and not actors in their own lives; they are in need of help from the outside.

The other reason for the popularity of the book is its inspirational message. To a certain extent, it gives American readers a chance to redeem themselves for their government’s disastrous involvement in the region. After all, the drone attacks that the US government has been conducting in the region since 2004 have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths—which set back the cause not just of women’s rights, but of human rights in general. By donating money to the Central Asia Institute, people feel that, in spite of the fraught nature of this involvement, at least some good is being done.

The reality, of course, is different. The Central Asian Institute claims to have built 141 schools, but reporters for 60 Minutes found that nearly 15 schools were empty, or used to store hay and spinach, and that 6 of them did not even exist. People who have donated money to this charity have been cheated, and the children who were supposed to have been helped have been forgotten. Perhaps this could have been averted if aid distribution were transparent—but after 14 years of operation the CAI issued only one audited financial statement.

General Petraeus is said to be a fan of the book; he has even inaugurated some of the schools with Mortenson. But why would a charity so shrouded in mystery receive so much support from a military official? Again, the answer lies in the redemptive story the book tells: that the American military is part of the solution to Pakistan and Afghanistan’s problems, rather than one of its causes.

There is no nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education. Building schools is great, but they still need to be staffed by trained, local teachers and supplied with materials, which can’t be accomplished without the direct involvement of Pakistanis and Afghans themselves. And at the moment, they seem to be the ones missing from the story of redemption.

Quotable: Miguel de Cervantes

April 11th, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which novelists use prologues or author’s notes to frame the stories they tell, to emphasize particular readings of the novel, to draw attention to stylistic devices they intend to use, and generally to place the book in a specific context. (Think of the foreword to Lolita, for example.) One of my favorites is the prologue of Don Quixote, where Cervantes pleads with the reader to be indulgent toward the story, because it lacks much of what he may expect from other novels of chivalry, and because it is not a fictional story at all but the true history of a knight’s adventures. Cervantes shares his concerns with a friend:

“Because how do you expect me not to be worried about the opinion of that ancient legislator called the general public when he sees that after all this time sleeping in the silence of oblivion, and burdened by the years as I am, I’m coming out with a book as dry as esparto grass, devoid of inventiveness, feeble in style, poor in ideas and lacking all erudition and instruction, without any marginalia or endnotes, unlike other books I see that, even though they are fictional and not about religious subjects, are so crammed with maxims from Aristotle, Plato and the whole herd of philosophers that they amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite and eloquent men? And when they quote the Holy Scriptures! Anyone would take them for no less than so many St Thomases and other doctors of the Church; and here they maintain such an ingenious decorum that having depicted a dissolute lover on one line they provide on the next a little Christian sermon, a pleasure and a treat to hear or read. There won’t be any of this in my book, because I haven’t anything to put in the margins or any notes for the end, still less do I know what authors I have followed in my text so as to list them at the beginning, as others do, in alphabetical order beginning with Aristotle and finishing with Xenophon and Zoilus or Zeuxis, even though one was a slanderer and the other a painter. My book will also lack sonnets at the beginning or at least sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies or famous poets; though if I asked two or three tradesmen friends of mine, I’m sure they’d let me have some, every bit as good as those written by the best-known poets in this Spain of ours. In short, my dear friend,” I continued, “I have decided that Don Quixote shall remain buried in his archives in La Mancha until heaven provides someone to adorn him with all these attributes that he lacks—I’m not up to it, because of my inadequacy and my scanty learning, and because I’m naturally lazy and disinclined to go hunting for authors to say what I know how to say without them.”

I love how Cervantes so humorously ties every writer’s worry (being found a fraud) with every writer’s ambition (writing a great book that will earn acclaim), and, by so doing, prepares the reader to enjoy his unique book.

Illustration via.

On the War in Libya

April 5th, 2011

I am not sure what to think about the war in Libya—or the intervention, as the preferred term goes these days. The very use of the euphemism gives me pause; the reasons for distorting language (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques” in cases of torture) are rarely innocent. The intervention, we are told, was necessary to prevent a massacre. To do nothing would have “stained the conscience of the world,” the President said.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, we have seen successful popular uprisings against dictators, but we have also seen Western governments support Ben Ali and Mubarak to the bitter end. The French government, for example, was still trying to ship tear gas canisters to Ben Ali two days before he fled Tunis. As for the U.S. administration, Joe Biden was insisting, as late as January 27, that Mubarak was “not a dictator.” There was nary a word of protest from the evangelists of democracy when a foreign police force, sent in by the GCC countries and led by Saudi Arabia, crushed the uprising in Bahrain. In all three countries, dictators committed atrocities against demonstrators, but no one seemed to think humanitarian intervention was necessary or urgent. The world’s conscience suffered the stain of 219 deaths in Tunisia, 384 in Egypt, and 30-odd in Bahrain, without comment from the President. It suffered the stain of brutal police repression in Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Syria, and Yemen.

But in Libya, it seemed, things were different. Here the tyrant needed to be stopped and demonstrators needed our urgent help in the form of a No Fly Zone. And so, with hardly any national debate or the approval of our elected representatives, the President committed the country to this new front. Never mind that Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading this “intervention,” was perfectly happy with Gaddafi a year ago, letting him pitch his tent in the garden of the Hotel Marigny. Now we are supposed to trust Sarkozy to rescue Gaddafi’s victims. Never mind that Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the man who is often heard speaking for the rebels, was part of the Gaddafi government for the last three years. Now we are supposed to believe that Abdul Jalil speaks for the oppressed Libyan people.

You see why I am skeptical. None of these guys inspire confidence: not Sarkozy, not Abdul Jalil, not Obama. And Western military involvement doesn’t seem to have worked out so well in North Africa and the Middle East. But I am still rooting for the Libyan people. In fact, the only pro-“intervention” argument that seems to me to have any merit is this: some Libyans are themselves asking for foreign involvement. (I have Libyan friends who support it.) And ultimately it is their country. They should decide its future.

3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2011

March 21st, 2011

A few weeks ago, the editors of 3 Quarks Daily, the magazine of eclectic online writing, asked me to judge their Arts & Literature Prize. (The prize is in its second year and was judged last year by Robert Pinsky. Prizes have also been offered in the areas of Science, Philosophy, and Politics.)

Nominations for the 2011 Arts & Literature Prize were opened in mid-February, submitted to a vote, and winnowed down to nine finalists earlier this month.

I enjoyed reading the nine entries very much and appreciated especially the wide variety of subjects and genres: book reviews, personal essays, critical essays, an open letter, and a poem. There was a lot of very strong writing but, in the end, I had to choose just three for the prize. You can find out who they are here.

Japan, Remembered

March 16th, 2011

I had the great fortune of visiting Japan with my husband in August 2001, and still have very fond memories of the time we spent there. The people we encountered during our three-week stay were unfailingly kind, hard-working, and endowed with a sense of personal responsibility I have seen nowhere else. We got lost on our way to Ginkakuji Temple and, though we could not speak a word of Japanese, found so many people willing to help. I remember, too, that when we tried to tip the bellboy at the hotel, he returned our money. “No tips in Japan, Madam.” Still, we continued to try. At a restaurant in Kyoto, we left the tip on the table and walked out, only to be pursued for half a block by the waiter, who proceeded to return our money. At the Tokyo National Museum, I was struck by the fact that the locals far outnumbered tourists in the galleries and by how much interest they showed in their art, culture, and history (as opposed to, I don’t know, the country I’m from, for example.)

I’ve been thinking about these experiences since last week, when news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan first broke. Watching the television footage from my hotel room in Dubai, where I was attending a literary festival, I was struck both by how powerful the quake seemed to be and by the general calm of the people. But then the tsunami warning was issued, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station shut down, and everything felt different, somehow. The scale of the devastation, and its long-term consequences, still seem hard to fathom. I am in awe of the unnamed 50 workers who stayed behind at the power station to try to prevent further leakage. But, aside from donating relief money, reading up on nuclear power, or worrying about its effect, I don’t know what to do. In this context, the idiocy of people like Glenn Beck—who says that the earthquake was a “message” from God—almost comes as a sign that life goes on; that, along with heroic workers, polemicist fools remain with us, even in the middle of catastrophes.

(Photo credit: EPA)

Once In A Fortnight…

March 3rd, 2011

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been writing guest posts for The Notion, which is The Nation magazine’s group blog. I’ve written on the recent Frankfurt shootings, Arab uprisings and American intervention, the blame game that Arab dictators have been playing, and I’ve followed up my posts on the February 20 movement with a short piece on the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui. In short, it was a busy fortnight! But now I am back to my regular pace, working on my novel, teaching at UC—and yes, of course, pondering what else to write about.

Morocco’s Moderate Revolution

February 21st, 2011

In a new piece for Foreign Policy, I write about why the February 20 movement’s demands in Morocco have so far been restricted to constitutional reforms. Here is an excerpt:

When I was living in Morocco in 2007, I often noticed that foreign journalists were completely confounded by the country. And understandably so, because, depending on whom they talked to, the country was either on the verge of full democratization or about to have a Russian-style revolution. Elections were going to bring about an Islamist tsunami or the leftist coalition would surprise everyone by its strong showing. The recent family law reforms had brought in real change for women or it did not matter because the judges were not applying the new law anyway. The Equity and Reconciliation commission was proof that the infamous Years of Lead — a period during the 1960s to 1980s characterized by widespread extralegal detentions and torture — were being reckoned with or that the victims of abuse had been unwittingly co-opted by a wily government. The francophone elite was fleecing the country or it was the country’s only chance of moving forward in an era of globalization. The king’s right-hand man had quit his post and run for a parliamentary seat because he had fallen out of favor in the palace or he had quit because he was going to be appointed prime minister.

The truth was, nobody knew.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Morocco’s Day of Dignity

February 21st, 2011

In a follow-up post for The Nation, I write about the protests that have taken place throughout Morocco on February 20.

In spite of the Moroccan government’s campaign—through its official media, its ministers and its allies—to discredit the February 20 movement, peaceful protests took place today throughout the country. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada.

As I explained in an earlier post, the campaign against the movement included accusations that it was led by agents of the Polisario Front; by atheists and other assorted non-Muslims; by republican revolutionaries; by Moroccans living comfortably abroad; or by people who are disorganized, unclear about their demands and leaderless. But even before the democracy protests got underway today, it was clear that the tide was turning and that the virulent government campaign had only served to bring about support from a wide cross-section of Moroccan society.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo credit: AP)

On Morocco’s February 20 Protests: The Status Quo Cannot Go On

February 17th, 2011

In a new post for The Nation, I write about the protests that are planned for February 20 in Morocco.

With the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests in favor of democracy and dignity. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, is not immune to this regional trend. Inspired by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young activists are using social media to spread the word about a protest in Casablanca on February 20. A video they have made to promote the protests has already gone viral. It features thirteen young Moroccan men and women, speaking in their native Arabic or Berber. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20,” they all say, and then go on to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, equality, better living standards, education, labor rights, minority rights, and so on. (You can view the video, with English subtitles, here.)

The February 20 movement was started by a group calling itself Democracy and Freedom Now. Their demands include constitutional reforms, the dissolution of the present parliament, the creation of a temporary transitional government, an independent judiciary, accountability for elected officials, language rights for Berber speakers, and the release of all political prisoners. Democracy and Freedom Now was soon joined by a loose coalition of cyber-activists, traditional lefties, Islamists, and 20 human rights organizations, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Amnesty Morocco.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

On Lara Logan’s Attack

February 16th, 2011

For the next two weeks, I will be writing guest posts for the Notion, the Nation magazine‘s blog. My first post is about the recently reported attack on the reporter Lara Logan:

A woman has been sexually assaulted—what should the reaction to such a heinous crime be? Blaming its victim? Disparaging the country she’s in? Looking for a scapegoat?

Stunningly enough, all of these reactions have been voiced since yesterday, when it was revealed that Lara Logan, the Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS, had survived sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The network has released few details about the attack, except to say that, when Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced and crowds filled the square, a mob surrounded Logan and her crew. She was separated from them in the ensuing frenzy and suffered “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” Logan flew back to the United States the following day and is now recovering in a hospital.

Read the rest here.

On Tunisia, Egypt and the Clash of Civilizations

February 14th, 2011

Last Friday, about fifteen minutes after it was announced that Mubarak had resigned, a close friend called me from Morocco, cheering for the Egyptian people. And then another friend called, emails arrived—all expressing the same joy at the fall of the tyrant. Over at the Daily Beast, I have an opinion piece about the effect of the ongoing revolutions on how people think about Arab world.

It was nearly 20 years ago that Samuel Huntington put forth the idea that major sources of world conflict in the aftermath of the Cold War would be cultural. Certain civilizations could coexist peacefully with one another, he argued, but others were bound to come into conflict because their inherent values and belief systems were polar opposites. The contrast between “the West” and “Islam” provided the clearest illustration of his argument and, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it gained an even wider following. Huntington’s theory has so pervaded public discourse that when people speak of his “Clash of Civilizations,” they usually mean the inevitable clash between the West and Islam.

People in Western countries were told by their elected leaders that the Arabs were fundamentally incapable of governing themselves in a democratic way, that they needed strongmen to keep them in line or else they might lash back in another major terrorist attack. Meanwhile, citizens of Arab countries were told by their local dictators that, well, this was the best they could do. Their nations were stable, they had a functioning government, and there was some sort of law and order on the streets. That was enough. And it was either that or the local Islamist party, which, if it were ever allowed to come to power or have a say in government, would endeavor to take away whatever rights the Arabs were lucky enough to have.

And you can read the piece in full here.

(Photo credit: AP)

Winter of Discontent

February 2nd, 2011

At a dinner with friends the other day, all any of us wanted to talk about was the uprising against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. I think we all know that we’re witnessing something unique here, something that will have far-reaching effects for the region. My latest piece for The Nation magazine is a commentary about this winter of discontent in the Arab world. Here is how it opens:

For those of us who have grown up in a dictatorship, the protests that have ignited throughout the Arab world feel like the fulfillment of a great promise. This promise was made to our parents and grandparents, to all those who fought for independence: that we would have the right to decide our future. Instead, our leaders delivered us into a world of silence and fear and told us that we must watch what we say and watch what we do. Our institutions were undermined or dismantled, our political parties were stifled or co-opted, their members disappeared or neutralized. And whenever we looked to the West for help, its presidents and prime ministers spoke with forked tongues, one moment lecturing us on democracy and another offering support to our dictators.

You can read the piece in full here.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

After Tunisia

January 28th, 2011

Yesterday, in between writing and grading, I kept thinking about this line from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians: “All creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.” Over the last few weeks, people throughout the Arab world have been reconnecting with this memory and demanding change. The people of Egypt have taken to the streets today to pursue this goal; the Mubarak regime’s response has been, as always, violent repression.

The Guardian asked a group of writers, including me, what we make of the protests that are now rocking the region. Here is my contribution:

In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, published in 1966, an unnamed university graduate returns to his home country, Sudan, full of hope about the new era of independence in his country. But an old man from his ancestral village warns him: “Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

As Salih predicted, the regimes that have followed European occupation of the Arab world have consolidated power in the hands of a small elite, which was often beholden to foreign countries and bent on repressing the civil and human rights of its people. Over the last two generations, the majority of young Arabs have known only two or three heads of state, each brought to office thanks to heredity, coup d’état, or sham elections. This is why, reading about the events in Tunisia earlier this month, it seemed to me I was witnessing the first national uprising in the Arab world since independence.

You can read it all here.

(Photo credit: AP/NYT)

On the Tunisian Revolution

January 20th, 2011

Over the last few weeks, I have been following the unraveling of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, my emotions changing from surprise, to awe, and then to elation. As you probably know by now, the protests began on December 17 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor who had suffered from police harassment for some time, had his unlicensed cart confiscated. He set himself on fire in the main square in the town of Sidi Bouzid, an act of desperation that inspired the country’s thousands of unemployed graduates to take to the streets in protest. It was perhaps understandable for some observers to initially dismiss the protests as another one of the region’s “bread riots.” But this was Tunisia, a country so tightly controlled that the protests themselves were highly unusual.

The police did what police do in dictatorships: they used tear gas, beat up protestors with clubs, and fired live ammunition, killing dozens of people. But the protests continued. Two weeks into the unrest, Ben Ali gave a television address, where he tried to show sympathy for the unemployed, while also blaming the country’s troubles on foreign hands and agent provocateurs. His speech was interrupted by a ringing cell phone, which turned a solemn affair into a comic one, as a flustered Ben Ali leaned forward and back in his chair without answering it. His patina of stern dictator seemed to crack. For the first time, his portraits were ripped from street corners. Trade union members and professionals joined students in the protests, which reached a fever pitch on January 4th, when it was reported that Bouazizi had died of his wounds.

Ben Ali dismissed a few members of his cabinet, but the protests grew even more popular, spreading from Sidi Bouzid to Kasserine, Sfax, Hammamet, and the capital. Then, on January 13th, he delivered a long litany of promises: he would create jobs, he would allow more personal freedoms, he would appoint an investigative commission, and, most significantly, he would leave office in 2014. Here was the dictator on television again, a man of seventy-four years with unnaturally dark hair and a chubby face, but the expression behind his eyeglasses was one of astonishment and fear. I had seen that expression before, a long, long time ago—on the face of Ceauşescu.

In the February 7 issue of The Nation magazine, I comment on the Tunisian events, and offer some context for them. Here is the opening paragraph:

In conventional thinking about the Middle East, perhaps the most persistent cliché is “moderate Arab country.” The label seems to apply indiscriminately to monarchies and republics, ancient dictatorships and newly installed ones, from the Atlantic Coast to the Persian Gulf, so long as the country in question is of some use to the United States. And, almost always, it crops up in articles and policy papers vaunting the need for America to support these countries, bulwarks against growing Islamic extremism in the Arab world.

A perfect example is Tunisia. Just three summers ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered a 2,000-word ode to the North African nation in Vanity Fair, describing it as an “enclave of development” menaced by “the harsh extremists of a desert religion.” This is a country with good economic growth, a country where polygamy was outlawed in 1956, a country with high levels of education, a country with perfect sandy beaches. And, Hitchens wrote, it “makes delicious wine and even exports it to France.

You can read the piece in its entirety here. And you can subscribe to the magazine here.

(Photo Credit: AP)

Pirates of Publishing

January 12th, 2011

Not long ago, I received a kind email from a reader in Pakistan, telling me how much he enjoyed reading my first book, which he had read in its Urdu translation. An “excellent work,” he called it, and he wanted to know whether I was working on something new. This is very flattering, of course, and I was touched by the compliment, but I confess my first thought was: what Urdu translation? My collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in a bunch of different foreign languages, but I was pretty sure Urdu wasn’t one of them. I asked this gentle reader if he wouldn’t mind sending me a copy. He said yes, and about four weeks later, I received a book wrapped only in a white band (which I imagine made it easier for customs officials to check the package). So here it is, a pirated translation of my book.

Now, I don’t speak Urdu, but, as it happens, this language uses an Arabic-like script, so I’m at least able to decipher a few words. I could read my name, and I could decipher a title, and I could even make out the name of the translator. It seemed vaguely familiar. Hmm, where had I heard it before? A quick search through my email showed that this gentleman had gotten in touch with me in the fall of 2006, to ask how he could spell my name in Arabic. I gave him the information, but when I asked why he needed it, I didn’t hear from him until early 2007, when he wrote to inform me that he had translated Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits into Urdu. And, he added, he was doing this sort of work for the greater good and he hoped I could find it in my heart to do the same.

After I got over my shock, I forwarded the message to my publisher, who wrote him directly to say that he needed to secure copyright permission if he wanted to publish his translation. “I was thinking of publishing the translation eventually,” the translator replied, although “no publisher commissioned me for [it].” And, well, why don’t I just quote the rest of the email:

As I wrote to Ms. Lalami, literature doesn’t sell well with Urdu readership. What does sell is mostly travel writing, women’s digests, bittersweet romances, and religious books. No mainstream publisher would even touch novels, etc. in the hope of making money Those who print this kind of literature are people like me, I mean people whose main source of income is a profession other than publishing or writing. I was not exaggerating when I said that the ordinary print run for novels is only a few hundred copies. Of these, twenty copies will come to me, if I’m fortunate enough to find a publisher, about 40 to 50 will go as complimentary copies to other writer friends, and the remaining copies will take a few years to sell. There is no question of a reprint. (I might also add here that the price of a book of about 200 pages would be between 2 to 3 US dollars.)

Pretty bleak picture, wouldn’t you say? But that is the fact. What some of us wrongheaded people do makes no sense in this country. But we do it anyway, wrongheaded or not. After all, one of our poets says to his beloved: “Come one day … if only not to come.” Paradox?! Whatever. But we instinctively know what all it means.

No, I didn’t clear the copyright issue with you. But this is just as good a time as any. I’d be personally grateful if you would consider granting it. Of course, I can’t pay for it. In recognition of the favor, and as a gesture of thankfulness, I’d be happy to share some of my copies, assuming we will get to that stage, with you and Ms. Lalami. And, of course, I’ll make sure that your permission is acknowledged on the translation, in a wording of your choice. If this isn’t what you were expecting, I’m very sorry.

The person in charge of copyright clearance at Algonquin Books replied that permissions were normally granted to publishing houses, not to freelance translators, and that he should have his publisher contact us directly. We never heard back, and I thought that was it. Until a few weeks ago, when this gentle Pakistani reader wrote to tell me about the translation he had bought in a Karachi bookstore.

Part of me feels like, hey, how cool is it that my work is pirated? How edgy. And the other part of me is outraged that someone, a professor at a major American university no less, would simply translate and publish a work of literature abroad without proper copyright permission. I’m not into writing for the money, God knows, but these translations are illegal, there is no guarantee that they are faithful to the original, and they punish other publishing houses and translators, those who do sign the proper agreements. And that’s neither cool nor edgy. That’s destructive. How do you translate that in Urdu?

Two Weeks in Cuba

December 31st, 2010

I just got back from two weeks in Cuba—not the easiest place in the world to get to from the United States, especially in these times of heightened scrutiny. (The recent relaxation of rules by the Obama administration made the trip possible for family and research.) My first impression upon leaving Aeropuerto Internacional José Martí-La Habana was of the ubiquity of street placards with revolutionary slogans. “Comandante en Jefe, tus ideas son invencibles,” said one, under a picture of a younger-looking Fidel Castro. Another warned, “La vigilancia revolucionaria: tarea de todos.” Perhaps my favorite sign was the one that boasted, “250 milliones de niños en el mundo duermen hoy en las calles. Ninguno es cubano.”

For all the revolutionary slogans, Cuba has inched further and further toward a free market economy, of sorts. There are now many private businesses: paladars and guest houses, for instance, which are frequented almost exclusively by tourists. The introduction of convertible pesos has created a system in which a few Cubans have access to this valuable currency, while the majority does not. As a result, people are always trying to get their hands on the convertible pesos and now you see street hustlers in a country that used to be mercifully free of them. The revolutionary ideals have become little more than a selling point, a way to attract foreign tourists.

There was so much to see and so little time to do it. We took a walking tour of Habana Vieja, with its stunning architecture; visited the Museo de la Revolución, where you can see the American yacht Granma, used by Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and 79 others to launch the Cuban revolution; saw a performance by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in an old church; waited for the cannon shot at the Fortaleza de San Carlos; took a tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory, which was smelly, loud, and frankly a bit Dickensian; and browsed many, many bookstores. By far the oddest sight for me were the Afghan students in Cienfuegos, amid scantily clad tourists and locals. They were apparently there to train as doctors, as part of the country’s own efforts to win hearts and minds. (I’m going to take a wild guess and say that training doctors might work better than dropping bombs.)

So this wraps up this very quiet and productive year for me. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and to write to me with your thoughts. I wish you all a happy and healthy new year, filled with joy and prosperity.

My Year of Silence

December 9th, 2010

At about this time last year, I decided that I wouldn’t send out any stories or essays and that I would turn down requests for contributions to magazines or anthologies. A vow of public silence, you could call it. I wanted to spend all of 2010 doing two things only: reading and writing. So, whenever I wasn’t teaching or traveling, that’s precisely what I did. I read and I wrote. It wasn’t always easy, especially at the beginning.  It was difficult to resist the temptation to write a review of a book I particularly enjoyed or an opinion piece about the latest political outrage.  (Oh, sure, I had short pieces coming out here or there, but these were written before my resolution.)  And now it’s been a year, and I realize this was one of the best things I could have done for myself. I feel as if I’m still under the spell of that working silence, so that I hesitate even to tell you about the novel I’ve written or the essays I’ve completed. But all in good time.

This review I wrote for The Nation is the first one I’ve written in a year. (It occurs to me that my last piece was also for them, from last November.)  It’s about the Moroccan writer and critic Abdelfattah Kilito, who has recently released a collection of short fiction with New Directions, in a translation by Robyn Creswell. Here is how it opens: 

On Idriss al-Azhar Street in downtown Rabat, not far from the Muhammad V Mausoleum, there is an unassuming but wonderful little coffee shop, the Café Jacaranda, where book readings are held and young artists’ paintings exhibited. There, on a warm spring afternoon three years ago, I went to hear two of Morocco’s foremost intellectuals discuss the feminine and masculine in classical Arabic literature. One was Fatema Mernissi, the world-renowned feminist, sociologist, and memoirist, the author of some twenty books on feminism and Islam, and co-winner, along with Susan Sontag, of the Prince of Asturias Award. Her arrival at the café was met with murmurs of awe. A throng of admirers immediately surrounded her, so that the only part of her that remained visible from the other end of the lobby was her fiery red hair.

The arrival of the other panelist, Abdelfattah Kilito, went unnoticed until it was time for the event to start. Where Mernissi was gregarious and funny, Kilito was reserved and bookish. Once the panel discussion started, however, the audience got to hear Kilito speak knowledgeably about Maqamat al-Hariri, the classical work of rhymed prose that until the end of the nineteenth century was one of the most widely read books of Arabic literature. Kilito spoke about the use of the sun and the moon as symbols for the masculine and feminine, the popularity of the Maqamat, the miniatures that the artist al-Wasiti created to illustrate the manuscript, the reasons why these miniatures are nowadays more widely disseminated than the text itself—and much else besides.

Among Moroccan writers, Kilito has always cut an unusual figure. He is equally at home in French and Arabic, in a country where language lines are drawn early and barriers are rarely crossed. He is not particularly known for his politics, in a society that routinely expects—and occasionally even demands—of its writers that they be politically engaged. His is not the name you will see mixed up in the kind of controversy that attracts the international press. But one would be hard-pressed to find a Moroccan writer who is more respected by his peers and more appreciated by his readers than Abdelfattah Kilito.

The full piece is available to subscribers only. (You can subscribe to the magazine here, for as little as $18.)

(Image credit: Wickednox)

Black, White and Read All Over

November 5th, 2010

Perhaps the most consistent irony about our mass media is that it’s curated, edited, customized, or otherwise filtered to such a degree that it is not mass at all. We hear only the news that is meant for us, and we scarcely stop to think about the news we’re not hearing. The recent mid-term elections seemed to me to be basically about different news being created for the benefit of different communities. It’s tempting to think of this as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a by-product of the speed with which news circulates these days. But my recent foray into old travelogues and historical fiction has really shown me that the way we receive and interpret the news hasn’t changed very much. Take Beloved, for instance. (I’ll be using this book in one of my classes next quarter, which is why it came to mind.) Late in the novel, Toni Morrison writes about how two different racial communities in nineteenth-century Cincinnati perceive and interpret a very specific piece of news. The scene takes place about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Paul D., a former slave, finds out a secret about Sethe, the woman he loves. Stamp Paid is the man who brings the press clipping (with this secret) to Paul:

Paul D. slid the clipping out from under Stamp’s palm. The print meant nothing to him so he didn’t even glance at it. He simply looked at the face, shaking his head no. No. At the mouth, you see. An no at whatever it was those black scratches said, and not to whatever it was Stamp Paid wanted him to know. Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary—something whitepeople would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps. And it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen in Cincinnati.

There is some back-and-forth as Stamp tries to convince Paul D. to look at the article about Sethe in the paper, even as he’s trying to justify for himself why no one warned Sethe that a slave catcher was headed toward her house.

Stamp Paid looked at him. He was going to tell him about how restless Baby Suggs was that morning, how she had a listening way about her; how she kept looking down past the corn to the stream so much he looked too. In between ax swings, he watched where Baby was watching. Which is why they both missed it: they were looking the wrong way—toward water—and all the while it was coming down the road. Four. Riding close together, bunched-up like and righteous. He was going to tell him that, because he thought it was important: why he and Baby Suggs both missed it. And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead; why nobody sent a fleet-footed son to cut ‘cross a field soon as they saw the four hourses in town hitched for watering while the riders asked questions. Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness, telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public.

Some pay attention only to what’s in the newspaper, to declarations from police officials and accompanying pictures; others have to keep their ears trained on the noises coming from the road, and then ‘telegraph’ them elsewhere. The juxtaposition is so skillfully weaved into the scene that I didn’t notice it the first time I read it. (Nor did I realize that the character of Sethe was based on a real-life runaway slave, who attracted the attention of Ohio newspapers because of what she had done. One of the reasons I really enjoyed re-reading the book was because of all the things I’m noticing now that I didn’t notice years ago.)

Photo credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Social Network and Me

October 27th, 2010

In late 2008, when I was preparing for the publication of my second book, Secret Son, I received from my publisher what seemed like a longer-than-usual author questionnaire. (For those of you who don’t know: the author questionnaire is a form that invites you to list magazine editors, book reviewers, booksellers, and pretty much anyone you think will have the slightest interest in your book.) Dutifully, I began to fill it out. Then I noticed a section on social media, which hadn’t been part of the questionnaire when I published my first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.

I had never had any interest in Facebook, but in the face of questionnaires I am nothing if not thorough. I joined the damn site. Within days, I realized that everyone I knew—family, friends, writers, acquaintances, neighbors—were on it. It really felt as if I were the last person in North America to give in to it. I was delighted to find so many familiar names, and happily accepted any and all friend requests. Before long, however, my friend list ballooned to several thousand. And I loved it. I loved seeing my family’s baby announcements or travel pictures; I loved reconnecting with people I had gone to college with; I loved finding out what my friends were reading and recommending; I loved reading articles my colleagues posted.

But the way Facebook works, everyone on your list has the same claim on your attention. So if I made a joke that had a ten-year-history in my family, someone whom I had never met, and who could arguably be the friend of an old acquaintance of a neighbor of a cousin, made a comment about not getting it. It became necessary to explain the joke, which took away some of its humor. Or if I posted a link to an article, along with a line that I thought was clearly sarcastic, someone took it literally. I had to temper the sarcasm, which took away its bite. If I was busy and did not get a chance to respond to an incendiary comment, someone was bound to take it as an endorsement. When someone sent me fifteen invitations to one event in the space of a week, I was forced to politely decline fifteen times. And when someone sent me a marriage proposal, I said, “Enough.”

I decided to remove anyone from my page whom I didn’t personally know. Sounds pretty sensible, right? Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that if you massively remove people from your list, these people don’t necessarily like it. And that you acquire a reputation as an anti-social person. (Which, okay, fair enough, maybe I am. That’s why I took such a perverse interest in David Fincher’s film. It was amusing to see a socially inept person create a site like that.) The truth is, I like people. But, call me crazy, I just want to know them, too. So now I have two personalities on Facebook: Private-me and Public-me. Public-me will tell you about her upcoming book, or about this cool article she just read, or even about this post, while Private-me sits in the corner, watching quietly, the way she always does.

Photo: Columbia Tristar Marketing

Quand La Bise Fut Venue

October 18th, 2010

This is what my windshield looked like when I left yoga class yesterday morning. We’ve had a very cool summer in Santa Monica—temperatures rarely rose above 70 degrees—and now it looks like winter is here in earnest. I don’t mind the cold weather, though. It provides fewer distractions from my book. Exactly what I need at the moment. The title of this post is from one of La Fontaine’s fables, which I, like every other child in the Francophone world, had to memorize: “La Cigale et la Fourmi” or “The Cricket and the Ant.” (In Aesop’s version, it’s called “The Ant and the Cricket.) For a few weeks now, I’ve been worrying that perhaps I had misspent my summer, that I hadn’t written enough. But I’m happy to say that I was wrong, that I needn’t have worried. I turned out to be the Ant, not the Cricket.

I Am Fodail Aberkane

October 5th, 2010

Fodail Aberkane is a name you will not have read much about in the press. He was a Moroccan construction worker, a man of very modest means, who spent the last week of his life fighting for the return of his motorcycle. It seems like such a trivial thing to lose your life over, a motorcycle, but when you have nothing, even an old moped, little more than a bicycle with a low-speed motor, can make a difference.

One reason you haven’t heard about Fodail Aberkane is that the facts about him are few and slim, and come mostly from an account given by his brother to newspapers in Morocco. Aged thirty-seven, Fodail Aberkane lived in Hay Inbi’at, a working-class neighborhood in Salé, the town that sits across the river from the capital, famed for its fortress walls, its medina, and its pirates. On September 9, which was the eve of Eid in Morocco, Aberkane was riding his moped when he was stopped by police, on suspicion of being under the influence of cannabis. The officers took him to the Hay Salam station, where he was held for two days, before being released on judge’s orders.

On September 13, Aberkane returned to the police station to collect his moped and his mobile phone. The police told him they could not release the vehicle without proof of insurance, which he did not have in his possession. Instead, he showed them a document attesting that he had declared the loss of his insurance papers to the relevant authorities. The police refused to accept the document. On September 15, Aberkane returned to the station yet again, this time bringing with him a new insurance contract, but the officers still refused to release his moped.

Here an argument broke out, which resulted in his arrest for insulting police officers. When his brother Mustapha visited him at the Hay Salam station, he says, he saw agents beating Fodail in full view of everyone. The police then threw Mustapha out of the station and warned him, “Don’t ever come back.” Two days later, on September 17, Fodail Aberkane was turned over to Ibn Sina Hospital in Rabat, where he was pronounced dead. The district attorney has opened an investigation, and everyone connected with the case is waiting to see whether charges will indeed be brought against the agents responsible for his murder. Until then, it’s the usual Wait and See.

The other reason you will not have heard about Fodail Aberkane is that he is the kind of victim who does not attract the attention of the English-language press. He is not a famous journalist, he does not run a political party, he has not run afoul of the Islamists, and he does not have any connection to terrorism. This particular victim is an easy one to ignore and to forget. When stories about Morocco are written, who will remember his name? Who, aside from his family, will mourn him? Who will hold his alleged murderers to account? Who will make sure that no other man or woman is beaten to death?

In 2004, Morocco established an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to document cases of torture during the Years of Lead. Since then, however, the country has once again started down the old, familiar road. Fodail Aberkane is not an exception. Over the last few years, allegations of torture have been made against the police in Morocco on many occasions. Two years ago, Zahra Boudkour, a 21-year-old university student from Marrakech, was arrested for taking part in a student demonstration. She was stripped naked and beaten, but no one was brought to account for the violence that was visited upon her. In his encounter with the Marrakech police, another university student, Abdelkebir El Bahi, found himself thrown from the 3rd floor window of a dorm. He is now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Boudkour and El Bahi were abused and tortured because of their ideas and their ideals. Fodail Aberkane was trying to get his moped back.

Torture has become one of Morocco’s most popular exports. According to the New York Times, the kingdom has provided its services to CIA investigators in the case of Binyam Mohammed, the Ethiopian citizen who was detained for five years at Guantánamo Bay, and later released after all charges against him were dropped. Morocco was also the site where Ramzi bin al Shibh, one of the 9/11 conspirators, was allegedly questioned. Videotapes of the interrogations were discovered under a desk at the CIA last year, the Associated Press recently revealed.

At a plenary meeting of the United Nations last week, Morocco’s king Muhammad VI spoke about the National Initiative for Human Development he has committed himself to for the last five years: education, job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection. These are all wonderful goals. But even an educated, employed, middle-class citizen with a low-carbon footprint cannot enjoy her full rights if her human life, that most precious of gifts, is not itself respected. Morocco cannot—indeed, it will not—progress as a nation, if the rule of law is not obeyed. Until then, the names may change, but the story will remain the same.

The Nine Year Itch

September 20th, 2010

I realized the other day that it had been nine years since I started blogging.  At the time, I was working for a software company in Los Angeles and spent lots of time experimenting with shiny new things online.  Although I had been reading blogs for a few months by then, I didn’t really take the plunge until after the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Starting a blog seemed like a necessary outlet for all the rage I felt.  I often commented on politics, culture, and literature, and eventually started to post several times a day.  I met a lot of people online, some great, some not so great.  I received many sweet notes of encouragement and the occasional hate mail.  I discovered a lot of books and writers I would not have otherwise heard about—and that is something for which I remain grateful.

After a while, the literary debates online seemed to me somewhat cyclical.  There were always stories about how independent bookstores were closing, how few newspapers still ran reviews, how Amazon was manipulating the market, which book was shortlisted for this or that prize, which book was picked to be on Oprah, which writers were feuding, which writer had dissed another one in a review, how few books by women were reviewed in major newspapers, how differently books by writers of color were marketed to the reading public, and so on.  In 2001, when I had started blogging, Jonathan Franzen, having just published The Corrections, said he was uncomfortable about having an Oprah sticker on his book because it might drive away male readers.  Now it is 2010, and Jonathan Franzen has a new novel out, Freedom, and again it has an Oprah sticker on it, but this time he is fine with it.  You might see this is a sign of change, but it looks to me more like a sign of continuity.

After enduring eight years of Bush, it seemed like the era of Obama was going to finally usher in some change.  But nine years after the attacks, American troops are still stationed in Afghanistan, with no end in sight; Guantanamo Bay is still open; and the country is still on high alert for terrorists.  In 2001, the country was awash in anti-Muslim comments.  Remember Franklin Graham’s comments that Islam is a “very wicked and evil religion”? Well, it’s 2010, and the anti-Muslim comments are at an all-time high. Marty Peretz says that “Muslim life is cheap” and that “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse” and there isn’t really any serious fallout for him or his magazine.  I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.  Maybe because I want to explain to you why I haven’t been blogging as much. Having to face the same inane “controversies” has made me weary.

Quotable: Agha Shahid Ali

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
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.

The Pakistan Floods

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)

The Half-Known World

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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