I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

Eritrea: heart and home

September 23, 2012

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]‘ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

Oman: a rare treat

September 9, 2012

Last December, when Cairo-based blogger mlynxqualey wrote a post on her excellent Arabic Literature (in English) blog giving me her recommendations for books in translation, Oman proved to be a stumbling block:

‘Someone help me so Morgan doesn’t end up reading something dreadful like Behind the Veil in Oman. I am not saying there are no Omani writers; I’m just saying that, outside of stories published in Banipal, I don’t know of anything in English,’ she wrote.

In fact, it wasn’t until nearly nine months later that an alternative presented itself in the shape of a recommendation from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington. It had recently published a translation of a collection of Omani fairy tales and was happy to send me a copy if I was interested. I needed no second invitation to take a look.

Much like Camara Laye’s The Guardian of the Word (see the Guinea post below), My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar is a work with big ambitions. As set out in a variety of introductions and prefatory materials, author Khadija bint Alawi Al-Dhahab intends the collection, which is dedicated to ‘His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said and the people of Oman’, not only to preserve the tales that she has gathered and transcribed but also to convey the different lifestyles that were traditional across the Dhofar region. In addition, translator W Scott Chahanovich, who undertook the project as a Fullbright Scholar, regards the recording of such stories as essential to ‘cultivating a sense of Omani nationhood’ and hopes the book will help challenge the fact that ‘the contemporary Arab world is, by and large, still represented by mass media almost exclusively as a monolithic idea’.

If that wasn’t enough to take on in 90 pages, there is also the issue of explaining certain cultural traits that bear on the tales, such as the Omani aversion to bragging and the national admiration for astuteness, and the challenges the author faced transcribing stories told in dialects for which no written form exists. This is further complicated when it comes to translation, with even small metaphors proving challenging to convey, as Chahanovich found when he came to the phrase ‘a cut of your hand':

‘Confused by the phrase, I consulted the Omani student translators [with whom I was working]. “A cut of the hand,” they explained, is a local colloquial adynaton – a figure of speech expressed in hyperbole that conveys an impossibility. At first, “when pigs fly” seemed most suitable for an English children’s fable; but this is both religiously inappropriate and culturally irrelevant. Islam, like Judaism, prohibits the consumption of pork. Also, there are no pigs in Oman. Choosing “when pigs fly” would be insulting to Omanis and would disregard the cultural particularity of this region, the setting represented in the tales.

‘Instead, I chose another popular adynaton in Arabic, the image of which is shared in other Western versions of the English “when pigs fly”: the cow. In Arabic, the expression is, “when cows go to Mecca to perform Hajj [the religious pilgrimage]“. This is too long and culturally dense to include in an English children’s story. [...] Therefore I chose the phrase “when cows fly”.’

With so much going on behind the scenes, you might expect the stories to show signs of strain and awkwardness. Not a bit of it. Lively, witty and original, the tales flow as though they are being told as you read by a seasoned storyteller who combines a sound knowledge of Omani traditions with a gift for creative embellishments when the occasion demands. This is a world where foxes make deals with camel traders, wells produce magical rams, and genies transform puppets into living brides for princes.

The stories often have a dark side too. There is Princess Salma, who has her limbs amputated by a jealous genie ‘insistent that he would not leave her alone until she was in the worst pain imaginable’, and the foolish old couple Shaq and Shurambaq, who kill their grandchild because of their ignorance. Even suicidal thoughts make an appearance in ‘The Poor Woodcutter’.

The advantage of this is that the stakes are nearly always high, making for some gripping stories. It also gives rise to some intrepid women characters, who, while they might need to use disguise or ingenuity to overcome the limitations placed on them by society, nearly always carry the day. Hearteningly there is repeated emphasis on the value of women being clever and shrewd and the importance of marriage being a meeting of minds. Even the unfortunate Salma triumphs in the end, though she pays dearly and disturbingly for the privilege of keeping her chastity intact along the way.

Now and again the moral message seems a bit like an afterthought. You can almost feel the adult narrator reaching the end of a graphic tale of derring-do and adding on a neat little observation out of a sense of duty. In addition, some of the tales finish a little abruptly. The book is also not helped by a formatting glitch that means the contents list page numbers do not match up with the stories.

All in all, though, this is a strong, intriguing and welcome taste of a literature that has until now been off-limits to English-language readers. Let’s hope it’s the first of many to come.

My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar collected and transcribed by Khadija bint Alawi al-Dhahab, translated by W Scott Chahanovich, Munira Al-Ojaili, Fatima Al-Mashani, Muna Al-Mashani, Muna Saffrar, illustrated by Fatima bint Alawi Muqaybil (Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, 2012)

It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini. Not that I’ve got anything against Khaled Hosseini, but as he has become the go-to Afghan writer in the UK I was keen to see what else a curious reader could turn up from this much reported and yet strangely mysterious land.

I contacted the Afghan Women’s Writing Project for ideas. They sent back some intriguing suggestions, several of which are on the list, however as most of the books they mentioned were either stories that had been told by women to non-Afghans and written down or accounts by Western journalists and soldiers of their experiences in the country, I didn’t feel they quite met my criteria.

I even had a brief exchange with a Canadian soldier-cum-food blogger who is serving out in Afghanistan at the moment. He told me the writer he’d read in preparation for his trip was… Khaled Hosseini.

In the end, a mixture of googling and reading reviews turned up Prix Goncourt-winning The Patience Stone by French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. Skipping the introduction (by Khaled Hosseini) I plunged right in.

Set ‘somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’, this slender novella portrays the struggles of a nameless woman as she tries to care for her comatose husband in a city torn apart by war. As militants roam the streets, bombs fall and the front line shifts to her neighbourhood cutting her and her children off from basic supplies, she battles to stick to the strict regime of prayer prescribed by the Mullah and to keep the wounded man clean and stable.

But as the days creep by measured out in the names of God she must recite 99 times for each of her 99 prayer beads every day and punctuated here and there by bursts of fear and sudden atrocities nearby, the woman is tested to her limits. With the power dynamics between her and the man who used to control her strangely reversed and the buildings around her crumbling, she begins to assert herself, spewing forth all the bitterness, frustrations and secrets that have walled her in for years.

The novel is stylistically striking. Told through a sort of floating consciousness that remains in the sick man’s room as the woman comes and goes and accords the same attention to the activities of the spider in the roof beams as to the human characters, the narrative has a weirdly detached air, which often makes the descriptions read like stage directions.

This creates a powerful contrast with the volleys of emotion that engulf the woman as she speaks in extraordinarily graphic terms of her physical, mental and sexual sufferings, caught up in tenderness and hate. It also makes for great suspense in the scenes where we wait in the room to discover what is happening outside, beyond our gaze, as in the passage where the woman goes to discover the grisly fate of her neighbour’s male relatives:

‘The women walk off across the rubble. They can no longer be heard.

Suddenly, a howl. From the woman. Horrified. Horrifying. Her footsteps stagger over the flagstones, stumble through the ruins, cross the garden and enter the house. She is still screaming. She vomits. Weeps. Runs around the house. Like a madwoman.’

At first the novel’s stylistic framework makes for moments of awkward exposition. With no omniscient narrator and no first-person thought processes through which to explain the backstory, Rahimi has to rely on the woman rehearsing the events that have led up to the start of the novel out loud to the unconscious man. This jars in the initial pages, but soon becomes natural and, as the woman’s thoughts and emotions become more volatile, even develops into the novel’s central trope.

Rahimi’s transformation of his narrative’s weakness into its strength, mirroring his central character’s journey, is impressive. I was gripped and moved by his ability to make something so telling and immediate out of stylistic constraints that might have been alienating and pedantic in another writer’s hands. It made me very glad I wandered off the beaten track.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage Digital, 2010)

Uzbekistan: banned books

April 28, 2012

A frequent dilemma when you’re trying to read a book from every country in the world is deciding which of the many perspectives in each nation to choose literature from. This is particularly tricky in the case of states that ban books on certain topics or viewpoints and so have two literatures: the official stories and the books released underground or outside, away from the reach of the law enforcers.

The journalist in me tends to be drawn to the illicit, banned books, partly because they’re more intriguing but also because I tend to assume that they will somehow be more authentic and truthful. However, as I found with my North Korean book (My Life and Faith by ardent patriot Ri In Mo), this tendency to favour marginalised voices over the official line can have the paradoxical effect of excluding the authorized stories and making them the ostracized, radical accounts on the world literature stage.

But what about a book written with a view to mainstream publication in the author’s home country but banned at the last minute? That was the situation Hamid Ismailov faced when the Uzbek translation of his Russian-language novel The Railway was due to be published in Tashkent. The first half of the novel had already appeared in a journal in 1997 when the Uzbek government, jumpy about the work’s irreverent attitude to authority, pulled the plug.

The book spans the first 80 years of the 20th century and is set in the small town of Gilas, a settlement on the old Silk Route and now a stop on the railway line ploughing its way across Central Asia. Presenting a portrait of the myriad narratives woven through this remote backwater, which has seen Uzbeks, Russians, Persians, Jews, Koreans, Tartars, gypsies, mullahs and Bolsheviks pass through and make their marks, it bombards the reader with a host of extraordinary, grotesque and often hilarious tales. There are the pregnant twins in a race to give birth after a town official promises to marry the first-born’s mother, the landowner bankrupted by paying off his pugnacious son’s blood debts, the Kirghiz teacher driven to absurdity by his desire to fit in and the orphaned boys who assume prominent positions in the town’s music scene despite one of them being deaf.

Translator Robert Chandler describes his work on the book as being like ‘restoring a precious carpet’ in his excellent preface and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the book structurally elaborate with a cast of more than 100 named characters, but it is linguistically and culturally complex too. Labyrinthine sentences thread themselves through clause after clause, teasing the reader with puns, digressions and asides, and the narrative bristles with references to events, ceremonies, bureaucratic formalities and rites of passage that will be unknown to most Western readers.

At its best, the humour and brilliance of this chronicle of ‘the inhabitants of Gilas: that lost and ill-assorted tribe of the debauched and depraved’ shines through. The puns are witty and the narrative glitters with insights – in particular it presents us with a ruddier and much more jovial face of Islam than we are used to seeing in the West.

Chandler manages to smuggle a lot of the linguistic jokes across in one guise or another. The scene early on in the book, for example, where Ivan the train driver misunderstands Umarali’s prison Russian and gives him fuel instead of alcohol is great.

However, there’s no denying the fact that this book is hard work. Even with the list of characters and Chandler’s end notes, it’s impossible to keep track of everything and everyone, at least on a first attempt. At times reading it felt like being at a lively party where people batted around in-jokes I could only half understand.

The narrative expresses this sense of being on the outside looking in too. One of the most striking moments in the book, where a nameless boy blows a kiss to an unknown girl on a passing train, evokes a sense of extreme  wistfulness.  For this book, shut out from the readers who would appreciate its subtleties without referring to the footnotes, it seems a powerful metaphor: a connection attempted but somehow missed.

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler (Vintage, 2007)

As titles go, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris has to be one of the most controversial out there. In fact, I got quite a few stares when I was reading this book on the Tube (no mean feat when you consider the sights you see on the East London line most days of the week).

One of the most anxious stares came from a young, blonde woman, who, when she saw me looking at her, switched on the radiant smile of the evangelical Christian. This impression was strengthened when the seat next to her became free and I sat down and saw that the title of the chapter she was reading was ‘The Lavish Grace of God’. All through the journey, I thought I could feel her twitching beside me, ready to pounce and tell me the good news.

However, if my neighbour had read the book, she would have found that there is a surprising lack of sex in much of it, albeit not for want of trying on the part of the protagonist. Having reached his fourth decade, Algerian-born banker Basile Tocquard, who ‘Frenchified’ his name as part of his attempts to shrug off North Africa and embrace Western culture, feels it is high time he moved out of his mother’s home and set himself up in a bachelor pad in the centre of town. There, he envisages, he will quickly dispense with his virginity and embark on a sexual odyssey among the city’s Caucasian goddesses.

He has reckoned without two things though: the powerful pull of his Islamic heritage, and the barriers in his own head. In addition, Basile’s story is related by a contemptuous female narrator, who makes fine capital out of the gap between his fantasies and the reality. As the novel progresses and Basile becomes increasingly deluded and paranoid, she strips his ambitions bare, revealing the contradictions and hollowness within.

Leïla Marouane is an exceptional writer, with a gift for making words pay their way. Every detail counts, from Basile’s ‘whitening creams and hair straightening sessions’ to the ‘poetry manuscripts’ he locks away in his desk drawer, building a rich picture that is at once funny, true and sad. This literary economy extends to the way that Marouane insinuates her female narrator into the text: at first sketched in only at the start of chapters and in the occasional footnote, but gradually making her presence felt everywhere.

Although the narrative is rooted in the clash between Islamic and Western culture, it is packed with universal insights about the attempts of younger generations everywhere to break away from what has gone before. As Basile sinks into madness in his efforts to deny his origins, the book excavates the foundations of identity, revealing the uneasy bargains we must all strike, whether between one culture and another or between the present and the past.

Inner peace, it seems, depends on an honest engagement with who we are and what we have been — sentiments with which I suspect my East London line neighbour would have heartily agreed. But then, who knows what her book was really about anyway?

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated from the French by Alison Anderson). Publisher: Europa Editions (2010)

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