Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Gulf Between Us

Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here's the unedited version:

The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.

Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.

A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.

The phantom censorship drama may help sales, but does a disservice to Bedell, whose novel treats the Gulf with affection and understanding. The protagonist, Annie Lester, is single parent to three unruly sons in the fictional emirate of Hawar. Annie thinks her eldest son’s wedding is the most disruption she has a right to expect, but another son has a secret to reveal, and her childhood boyfriend – now a sexy film star – has arrived at the reception. One thing leads very cleverly, with great pace, to another, until Annie’s future in the emirate, and the safety of her sons, hangs in the balance. The story unfolds in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The metaphorical temperature constantly rises.

Hawar (the word means ‘discussion’) is obviously based on Bahrain, with its pearl divers, Sunni-Shia tensions and barely concealed royal disputes, but is a recognisable portrait of any Gulf state: – “an affluent bubble in a cloudless sky, confected in a few decades from desert subsistence into cities, hotels and high rises.” Bedell skillfully sketches the enbubbled communities of the Gulf – Western, Arab, Asian – and their internal stratifications of class, status and tribe. She is as good on human commonalities as she is at communal distinctions.

Her treatment of attitudes to gays is balanced and accurate. Her homophobes are as likely to be Anglos as Arabs. Indeed the book’s serious theme is prejudice of all varieties, secular and religious, political and sexual, anti-Arab and anti-Western. The novel has a generosity of spirit which the allegations of censorship do not.

Most impressively, “The Gulf Between Us” offers a living breathing portrait of a family, not just the individual characters but also their continual, understated effect on each other. In considering the ramifications of each event on her sons as well as herself, Annie sounds like an entire family talking. In plot terms, her romance is nicely interwoven with her sons’ ardent adventures. The novel has stirring climaxes and endless twists, and is all gripping stuff, even if comic realism slides into genre formula towards the unconvincing end. But at its worst it’s still great escapism: light, finely-observed, funny and reflective.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stranger to History

A book review of Aatish Taseer's “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” for the Guardian.

Aatish Taseer grew up in secular, pluralist India. His early influences included his mother’s Sikhism, a Christian boarding school, and He-Man cartoons. Nagging behind this cultural abundance, however, was an absence: of his estranged father, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer.

The best of “Stranger to History” is the “Son’s Journey” of the subtitle: the movement towards – and away from – his father’s world. Taseer describes the embarrassment, frustration and occasional joy of meeting his father and half-siblings, and of approaching a cultural and national identity which painfully excludes him. Alternating with this story is a more generalised journey into Islam, from the Leeds suburb which produced the 7/7 bombers, through Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca, to Iran and Pakistan. On the way Taseer observes the ‘cartoon riots’, is interrogated by Iranian security officials, and watches the response in his father’s Lahore home to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The writing is elegant and fluent throughout, the characters skillfully drawn.

In Pakistan Taseer concentrates on particularities, and here his writing is particularly good. His descriptions of rural Sind and the troubled feudal landowner he finds there are unforgettable. By depicting the homes deserted by the Hindu middle class and the crumbling shrines where Hindus and Muslims once prayed together, he makes his parents’ separation an image of the rupture of partition, one of the two great ethnic cleansings of 1947 whose effects still plague us all. For Taseer, unified, diverse India becomes a father-sized absence.

Another absence is traditional, diverse Islam. The religion, in its varied manifestations, was once “a whole system of belief, complete with ideas of politics, law and behaviour.” What we see now, whether in corrupt police states or in the ‘revived’ Islamic regimes, are the signs of the loss of that older society. Beyond population transfers, Islamic modernity, like its European predecessor, has often brought a fierce homogenisation of culture and belief.

Taseer diagnoses the loss of tradition and some of its symptoms – indeed the book is a lament for what has gone – but once out of the subcontinent and into the more abstract search for Islamic identity, his journey is less compelling.

It is unfortunate that this more media-driven section of his journey (for his assumptions and concerns here are those of the Western media) begins by meeting the high-profile British ‘Islamist’ Hassan Butt, recently exposed as a “professional liar” who told the media “what the media wanted to hear.”

Further east on his self-limiting (and, one suspects, publisher-imposed) search for ‘transnational Islam’, Taseer misses the diversity which does still exist. The angry unreflective Islamism he meets in Syria is only one aspect of the country’s multicultural life, and by no means the most obvious. He presents a unidimensional picture of his transit lands, sometimes verging on the paranoid. He is too often “chilled” by what he hears, and he too often leaps to the worst conclusions. Syrians certainly know how to avoid political taboos, but Taseer’s assertion that they only talk politics in the privacy of their cars couldn’t be further from the truth. The Syrian Mufti is awarded the epithet “ferocious”, but Mufti Badr Hassoun is a liberal Muslim of Sufi background who repeatedly condemns terrorism and sectarianism, and campaigns against honour killing.

Ironically, Taseer’s secular perspective would benefit from a dose of materialism. In Syria he recognises an amorphous Muslim sense of ‘grievance’, but not the millions of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. A native informant in Iran explains the causes of the Islamic revolution rather too simply: “we had nothing better to do.” Taseer describes the growing “demand for a literal Islam” in Pakistan without mentioning the 11,000 dead in the spillover of America’s war into the Pakistani tribal areas. The only time the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are mentioned, the O word is bracketed between inverted commas, as if it were no more than a Muslim fantasy.

There is at times a certain clumsiness in definition – is the Muslims’ problem an obsession with or a denial of history? – and there are clumsy mistakes, as when Taseer drastically mistranslates an Arabic slogan.

These weaknesses perhaps say more about our publishing and reading culture than they do about Taseer. After all, how seriously would we take a cultural analysis of Britain written by someone who speaks no English? Writers such as Pankaj Mishra and William Dalrymple offer much more interesting insights into modernity’s cruel impact on traditional Islam, but “Stranger to History” shines when Taseer concentrates on what he knows best: the scar across the subcontinent, and across his own heart.

(link to article on Hassan Butt: The quotes in paragraph 6 are taken from this Inayat Bunglawala article.)