Saturday, April 25, 2009

Syria's Tolstoy

A book review for the Guardian:

Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they’d attended in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into group performance of jokes, laments, myths, and conspiracies. Even the Syrians’ surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk’s-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt, and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”

Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs’ master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany. Here is the Great Syrian Novel, and its author Rafik Schami.

In “The Dark Side of Love” Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is sculpted with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty of itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveal a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.

It starts with an unsolved murder. “Knowledge is a lock,” says a policeman, “and the key to it is a question, but we’re not allowed to ask questions in this country…which is why there isn’t a single good crime novel in Syria. Crime novels feed on questions.”

Commissioner Barudi dares to ask. The answer is an epic of violent enmity between families, and between clashing ideas of love. The first idea is easily stated: “Love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart.”

‘Identity card’ means religion and sect and, more fundamentally, the all-powerful clan – that haven of solidarity and comfort which “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” In the mountain village of Mala, the Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins feud and kill for honour and revenge. In nearby Damascus, Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin prefer the approach of Syria’s greatest Sufi saint, Ibn Arabi, who cried, “Love is my religion!” Like Romeo and Juliette, or Majnun and Laila, Farid and Rana’s romance shines secretly, ill-fatedly. It is a compelling and complete love story.

Schami’s Mala is on a par with Marquez’s Macondo for colour and resonance, although nothing more magical than real life happens here – only seductions and insanities, a visit by a dangerously drunk president, a peasant uprising, a bandit siege.

Damascus, “a lost luggage office” refined and trampled by 40 civilisations over 8,000 years, is experienced through its cafes, hammams and family homes, its puppet shows, Eid festivals, and hunger riots, via the underground press, a boxing match, and a brothel. The canvas is vast and closely painted. It feels encyclopedic, in psychological observation as well as social breadth.

There are no faux-magical pyrotechnics in the telling, but richly detailed characters working through real situations, characters whose inherited wounds the reader comes to care deeply about. Each is vividly drawn, with quiet and acute intelligence. The patriarch George Mushtak is an elemental force. So too is his philandering, repenting son, Elias. Farid, who we know best of all, grows by enduring a tyrannous father, Israeli bombs, and a ‘political’ prison camp.

“The Dark Side of Love” is a fiction which accurately (if selectively) documents Syrian social history. Its sweep reaches from 1907 to 1970, through the French occupation, the chaotic coup years, the rise of the Ba’ath, and the disastrous June war. Farid and Rana swim on the great currents of 20th Century Syrian thought – Communism, feminism, nationalism, Islamism – and witness the poisoning of the waters. Farid’s torture scenes are painfully, brilliantly narrated. Relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between the countryside and the city, between men and women, and between political factions, are explored with subtlety and honesty.

It is translated very well from the German, although annoying Germanic orthography remains – so that Yusuf is written ‘Jusuf’ and the Damascus quarter Muhajireen becomes ‘Muhayirin’. And perhaps a glossary of dictators’ names would have been useful. Schami disguises the actual characters with names whose comic impact will be lost on those who don’t speak Arabic. Abdul Nasser, for instance, is called Satlan, which means ‘stoned’.

The weakest part of the book is its title. “The Dark Side of Love” illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel’s structure is as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as ‘War and Peace’.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rant against Hypocrisy

I don’t quite know why, but hypocrisy is the element in political discourse which catalyses my most murderous responses. Perhaps it’s because I like language, or respect it, and believe it shouldn’t be raped.

I remember Tony Blair making a speech in Gaza in November 2001. This is when I realised for certain that he was not a mere fool but a dangerous and filthy murderer. Away from the hall and its selected attendees, for the visiting dignitary’s comfort, a demonstration against British Zionism was being violently suppressed. And at that very moment British warplanes were ravaging Afghan villages. And Blair lectured his audience, representatives of those who’d been hounded and attacked for six decades, in the following terms: What you people must understand, he squeaked, is that no cause, however just you think it may be, justifies violence. Not a flicker of irony nor a trace of self-doubt wrinkled his ugly face.

Let me be clear about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is the president of a state which has achieved a mild but relatively remarkable degree of economic independence, and which leads a principled opposition to imperialism in the region. Compared with its neighbours, it is prosperous and free. But the Islamic Republic also interferes in its citizens’ personal business by trying to enforce dress codes and the like. Its rate of judicial murder is higher even than America’s. Corruption is endemic, as it is almost everywhere, and hypocrisy bedevils the religious establishment as much as it does politicians in the West. Ahmadinejad is a populist demagogue in the mode of Berlusconi or Jack Straw; his function is to distract from his regime’s failures by means of a grandiose and imprecise rhetoric. This means he often ends up with his foot in his mouth. “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he informed Columbia University, “We don’t have this phenomenon.” He may or may not have meant that Iran has a different cultural approach to sexual categories, and his claim was certainly no less absurd than the university president’s claim that Ahmadinejad was a “dictator”, but his words were clumsy at very best. It almost seemed that he’d made a deal with Fox News to play the oriental buffoon. Ahmadinejad often doesn’t seem very clever. Iran is a clever country full of clever people, and it deserves better.

In a 2006 interview with Der Spiegel, Ahmadinejad said, “..there are two opinions .. in Europe. One group of scholars or persons, most of them politically motivated, say the Holocaust occurred. Then there is the group of scholars who represent the opposite position and have therefore been imprisoned for the most part.” This may or may not be outright Holocaust denial, but it looks very much like it, and his comments occasioned criticism from within the Iranian establishment, including from the Supreme Leader. The two-fingers aspect of such flourishes goes down well with some less thoughtful Muslims; the glee of it is in trampling the Western taboo. But it remains ignorant and offensive. It’s particularly offensive to the memory of those Jews slaughtered by fascism who were not Zionists – the majority – people slaughtered not for any political crime but because Hitler thought they were Semites and therefore subhuman. It’s personally offensive to such children of Holocaust survivors as Norman Finkelstein, who has done so much to oppose Zionism. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, or near-denial, wounds the Palestinian cause because it fails to understand the larger structure of European racism which permitted both the Holocaust and the Nakba. And it plays into the hands of Zionists who shout, “these filthy Semites hate us because they are anti-Semitic.” This obscures the truth, which is simple: We don’t hate them for their race, and only a hysterical few of us hate them for their religion. We hate them – from a deep and blackly bubbling well – because they are thieves and murderers and racists and liars. A Zionist is a Zionist, whether he’s a Jew like Olmert or a WASP like Bush. And some of the greatest, most heroic enemies of Zionism are Jews, people like Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Israel Shahak, the Neturei Karta, Philip Weiss.

Yet we must also remember that Ahmadinejad has been slandered, mistranslated and misrepresented. He is not a puppet tyrant in the Mubarak mould but a democratically elected leader who exercises his powers according to a constitution. Of course, Iranian democracy is by no means perfect; it is formally limited by the Council of Guardians, just as American democracy is formally limited by the corporations. But Iran is certainly more democratic than Israel, a state which allows the full benefits of citizenship to only half of the people under its rule. When Ahmadinejad quoted Khomeini’s opinion that “the regime occupying Jerusalem would be wiped from the page of history” – an event any decent human being should hope for – he was interpreted as calling for the genocide of Israeli Jews. The neo-cons also had a field day with their entirely false story about Nazi-style yellow badges to be worn by Iran’s Jews. The real blood-and-soil racists amused themselves by inventing Persian Hitlers.

When considering Ahmadinejad’s spirited comments on Israel we must remember not only the disgust an informed person feels over the theft of Palestine but also that the Zionist state has nuclear missiles targetted at Iran, a country which has not attacked anyone in 300 years. We must remember too that Zionism has recently helped engineer the destruction of Iran’s western neighbour.

In any case, in his speech to the Durban Review Conference on Racism, Ahmadinejad seemed to have learnt his lesson. Perhaps mindful of the hadeeth “A true jihad is a word of truth spoken before an unjust ruler,” he steered clear of Holocaust denial and argued instead that Jewish suffering had been used as a pretext for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the establishment of an apartheid state. And this is the plain unvarnished truth. Because how can Germany’s murder of six million Jews possibly justify the dispossession of the ancient Canaanite-Arab Palestinian people, the descendants of the Biblical patriarchs? It can’t. No more than the legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery can justify the creation of a blacks-only state in Finland. No more than the Holocaust and continuing persecution of the Gypsies justifies the establishment of Gypsy rule over the people of France. Should the poor Tutsis be granted Belgium, and the Belgians driven into camps, and massacred? I’m not talking about Tutsi immigration to Belgium, or even the founding of a Tutsi defence force in the country. I have no problem with that, and I have no problem with Jewish immigration to Palestine. I have a problem with Tutsis expelling Belgians from Belgium.

The examples above seem immediately absurd, but the Palestinian case, to many in the West, doesn’t. I wonder why? But I don’t wonder very much. Finland, France and Belgium are white European countries with advanced capitalist economies. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are not proper human beings. They are brown people, Arabs, Muslims, people of the South. That’s why. It’s only recently that the official West has accepted that Palestinians even exist.

Ahmadinejad called Israel a racist state. This view is considered controversial or, according to an American spokesman, “hateful.” But Israel was created by an act of massive ethnic cleansing. That means murdering and expelling on the grounds of ethnicity, of race, of religion. Today Israel’s absurdly-named Law of Return allows automatic citizenship to anyone of Jewish origin anywhere. Meanwhile millions of Palestinian refugees are refused the genuine return which is their legal and moral right. Those Palestinians who currently hold Israeli passports (but not for much longer if Israel’s fascist foreign minister has his way) are concentrated in deprived zones, intimidated, kept out of all coalition governments by Jewish agreement, and their houses demolished. Recently an Israeli Jewish policeman was given six months community service for shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian Israeli. Israel also rules over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have voting rights only to a non-existent ‘authority’, who are concentrated in refugee camps and townships, who are forbidden to travel on Jews-only roads, who are trapped by walls, whose drinking taps run dry while the Jews on the hilltops keep their swimming pools topped up, whose schools are closed, whose hospitals bombed, whose mothers die in labour at checkpoints, whose children’s brains can’t grow for the micronutrient deficiencies deliberately planned by the siege.

If Israel is not a racist state, if Zionism is not a racist ideology, then I do not speak English.

A gaggle of white delegates walked out during Ahmadinejad’s speech. Britain’s envoy pigeon-toed it from the hall wearing an inbred public-school jowliness which he perhaps thought was manly. One genitally-challenged weasel took the revolutionary action of shaking his fist in the President’s direction, for all the world as if his fist and all its blood and hypocrisy were not, like the rest of him, too obscene to be put on public show.

The countries which walked out, or refused to attend, are Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the UK, the US, and the Zionist terror state. Half of these states were founded on genocide, and the rest have been guilty of it. All are complicit in the six-decade-long ethnic cleansing of Palestine – the actual, not imagined, destruction of a nation. The self-righteous hypocrisy of these criminals is nauseating.

None of them walk out of speeches by their mass-murdering darling Shimon Peres. All of them will shake Avigdor Lieberman’s repulsive hand. Their response to the massacre in Gaza was to help Israel tighten the seige. And it is no surprise that Israeli war crimes strike them as morally correct, for they themselves have committed enormities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The outrage expressed by the criminals and drones who walked away from Ahmadinejad’s speech is proof, if proof were needed, of the hopeless racism of our world system, and proof too that the system will fall. How long can the earth be ruled by people who rape their own languages? What human depth or stability is there in a discourse founded on dishonesty? These are people who maim, starve and kill in the name of human rights, who bolster apartheid in the name of anti-racism. Changez Khan and Attila were a league ahead in civilisational terms, and so too is Mahmoud Amadinejad.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writer Talk

Notes for a talk to the Dumfries Writers Group tonight. It’s pretty narcissistic, but narcissism is what I do. I’ll also talk about the practicalities of finding an agent and a publisher, and about blogging.

Where does the urge to write come from?

It comes from the fear of death. From where all human effort beyond eating comes from. Maybe eating too. But the fear of death is only one way to say it. Writing is the attempt to control what can’t be controlled, to impose pattern on confusion, to battle time by recording it, to immortalise thought and sensation, and so to make them sacred. A vain but very human enterprise.

The film director Werner Herzog said, “I believe you can discover a very deep, ecstatic truth by fabricating.” I’m not sure what this means, but I’m sure I agree with it.

Also, for me, fabrication is a channel for passion which might otherwise express itself as anger.

But to be more specific, about my own case: I returned to Oman from Sri Lanka with tropical bacteria eating their way up my leg. I was hospitalised for two weeks. The leg was nearly amputated.

While I was lying there, reading Bellow’s Augie March, worrying about my rotting body, about death, I decided to start writing. Just to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer, because I’d grown up with the idea, probably learnt from my grandfather, that writers were the most valid type of human being, most worthy of fame and respect, the most honest, the ones who see most clearly. The ones who win immortality. Proper Writers.

But I’d never written. Not in a sustained way. So I started, and discovered something remarkable: a writer is someone who writes.

It is. You see, I’d thought a writer was a culture hero. I’d dreamt about being rather than about doing. Dreaming about being a writer but not being one made me very depressed, with the insignificance of my job and with my life in general. Once I started doing the writing, however, I became much happier. Writing became an action, a process, and no longer an impossible ideal. The glory of it is the constant engagement and struggle, not the book in the shop window. The book in the shop window was actually something of an anti-climax, although I remember an hour-long drugs-free cocaine rush on the hot pavements of Souq al-Khoud the night my agent called to say she’d sold the novel.

To make a novel you need characters and you need a journey, because the human Ur-plot is a journey – of departure, initiation, and return. This is how we understood life when we were hunter gatherers, and this is how we understand our lives now.

The journey can be enacted on any scale. It could be: depart to the pub, argue with girlfriend, return home changed. It could be depart up the Congo, see the heart of darkness, return home with wiser eyes.

Plot – the mechanics of the journey – arises from conflict, and from the character itself. “Character is plot,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. The conflict could be between characters, or within the heart of a character, or between the character and some greater power.

When I started I had two characters, a man and a woman. They had no distinctive features, no history, no identity. But they came into focus as I worked. It seemed the more I wrote the more I uncovered them and their story. As if it was all pre-existent, and I just had to chip away to reveal it. Chipping away, that’s what writing is like. A struggle to chip away at your own limitations and blindnesses, at the layers of cliché and received thinking built up inside.

In my novel the conflict is between the main protagonist and his wife, and between the protagonist’s parents, and between atheism and Islam. The protagonist’s journey is from belief in atheist and nationalist myths towards an Islamically-tinged agnosticism, from denying and ignoring an unwelcome piece of information towards accepting and digesting it, and from being a bad human being towards being a better one. The novel is also in some very partial way a glimpse of the world’s journey towards September 11th and what followed. In some novels, the world is a very important character.

It is amazing to watch your words slip your conscious control and take on their own life. I belatedly discovered I had written about some of my own life issues, without planning to. For instance, I was a teacher (a good teacher), and the novel is filled with bad, or strange, teachers. Also some of the father stuff looks suspiciously like my relationship with my father, although mine is a very different character. And it’s astonishing to see the characters behave according to their own logic, and not yours. Whenever I bent the characters to my will I failed. It would have been a better novel if I’d allowed them more freedom.

Do I enjoy writing? Not so much enjoy as thereby feel justified in existing. I have bad justification anxiety. When I’m not writing I worry: what’s the point of me? or What’s the point of the universe? Or more positively, I sense that the universe, and my chance to glimpse it, has a point, but the chance is passing me by. I am wasting my time. It is all waste – until I start writing. Writing helps me to stay awake, to notice, to engage. Perhaps I feel I cheat time by recording it. Otherwise, I can’t explain why it’s good, other than to say that writing like praying is beneficial to my mental health. And the exhilaration that you experience when you write a good sentence is like nothing else. The whole process is wonderful. Except when it hurts. When you write a bad sentence, or chapter, or book, or when you fail to write at all. And when it hurts it hurts as much as a wayward child. All that investment. The late nights and early mornings. The emotion. The sense of potential. When you see it going off the rails, when it reads back flat, you feel anger, terror and despair.

But more on the process: After a lot of writing – by hand – and a lot of crossing out, I could see something of a structure. Structure was the product of a million tiny decisions rather than the imposition of a single decision from above. I did a year of part-time writing before I saw a novel in it. Then I moved to the computer (always keeping a pen nearby to work through knots) and started laying it out chapter by chapter. Within each chapter, I worked scene by scene. The writing became much easier at that stage.

Editing is a difficult stage, or at least a different stage. It doesn’t have the same flow to it as writing on a blank page, but it can be very stimulating. I did most of the editing when I still had three chapters to write. Or to complete. Surprisingly, the tension increased as I reached the end. I could see a hundred little things to do on the way, and I couldn’t relax until the job was finished.

In retrospect, I have ideas on what’s wrong with the novel, or what I would like to do differently. The first thing is, when it moves beyond the main two characters, the novel’s dominant genre is satire. And satire is the easiest thing to write. I’d like to write prose just as exciting but calmer, if you know what I mean.

Second, the last third of the book becomes very digressive. Allan Massie in the Scotsman was kind enough to call the book ‘remarkable’, but felt that it could lose fifty pages. One reason I kept those late chapters in was simply that I liked them. By the time I wrote them I’d become much more fluent and exuberant, and I was proud of myself. Another reason, more serious, was to set up belief systems to parallel the main two that concern my characters – Islam and atheism. So I have episodes to show other religions such as pyramid-scheme capitalism, reductive brain science, black nationalism and art-as-spirituality. I don’t particularly regret the structure, even if a straightforward plot movement would have sold more books. Damn, I like Thomas Pynchon as well as I like Truman Capote. But I recognise that my novel is more of a narrative than a novel, and I would like to be able to deliver a nicely tied together plot, with suspense and pay off and the rest. I’d like to understand how to do that.

Anita Sethi in the TLS also liked the book, but wrote that the style at times degenerates into ‘theoretical disquisition.’ I think this is true, and those sections and word choices look ugly to me now. For that reason I wish I’d put it in a drawer for six months after I’d finished writing.

And now for the ‘difficult second novel’, which contains at this point much more difficulty than novel.

D.H.Lawrence said this: “Publishers take no notice of a first novel. They know that nearly anybody can write one novel, if he can write at all, because it’s about himself. A second novel’s a step farther. It’s the third that counts, though...If [a novelist] can get over that ass’s bridge he’s a writer, he can go on.”

It took Nadeem Aslam a decade to write his beautiful second novel Maps for Lost Lovers. Zadie Smith, so I hear, considered getting a real job while failing to write her second. Ralph Ellison never finished his.

Here are some of my problems. Nine months ago I moved from Muscat to Castle Douglas. This change has thrown me in every direction. The time in Scotland feels like a pregnancy, and I feel that now something new is being born. Whether human child or demon I know not.

Another problem is the self-consciousness that comes with being published. I ask myself the useless questions a Proper Writer is expected to ask, like What kind of a writer am I? and What kind of writer should I be? Some questions help, but not these. Because I don’t have answers to them, I feel less qualified to write a novel now than I did five years ago. Five years ago I didn’t ask the questions.

I might have told myself that as a published Proper Writer I could now choose what to write about. This might be wrong. Perhaps I should only write about what I must. Perhaps there is no should.

In my failed attempts at a second novel I was trying to do too much, and trying to do contradictory things. I wanted to do something brisk and pared down, yet also felt I had to be flowery, like a Proper Writer. I wanted to write something concerned with memory and timelessness, but also something locked urgently into time. I wanted my setting to be both Edenic and apocalyptic. Perhaps I’ll be able to tie these contradictions into an artful tension when I’ve written a few more novels, but not yet. I’m not capable.

I wrote what seemed to be two thirds of a novel, and then started again, in the first person. That time I wrote about half a novel, whatever ‘half a novel’ means, before I came to a halt.

And come to a halt I have. It stopped being fun. The flow stopped. This has been tremendously depressing, as if the Scottish dark wasn’t enough. But I feel I am just out of the trough. I’m reading a lot, and scribbling little nonsenses in notebooks. I have a couple of ideas, which may or may not lead to products. I may skip the second novel and move directly to the third, or I may revisit the second. Maybe I’ll never achieve another finished product. But I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter: writing, like life, is a process, and it’s only the process that counts.

(Since I'm linking to reviews, you'd better read the best, by the lovely Aamer Hussein.)