Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reza Aslan - Tablet and Pen

I've learned a great deal from Reza Aslan's writing. Particularly as I transitioned to living in the Arabian Gulf, his No God but God was profoundly important to me in beginning to understand Islam, its history and potential future.

It was my past experience with Reza's writing that drew me to ask for Tablet and Pen (2011) as a family gift. Upon receiving it, I was a little disappointed that, instead of being Reza's work, it was a collection of other modern Arab world authors that Reza had compiled. Tablet and Pen demonstrated that Arab authors have been quite active over the last hundred years and that they have been taking great artistic and political risk through their writing. As I read a couple of the stories, I knew that the explicit images might give conservatives from a variety of backgrounds pause. I read on...

Reza punctuated the poetry, essays, and short stories with brief commentary introducing the pieces in each section. Overall, the entire book was a march through the 20th century up to 2010, granting the reader the opportunity to see both the anguish and resignation of Arab world authors whose lives have been shaped by colonialism, border disputes, and being driven from their ancestors' lands. Some of the stories convey hope while others cannot be understood in any other way than expressions of utter desolation. I read on...

As an example of both hope and desolation, Abu Salma offered a poetic critique on Palestine in his "My Country on Partition Day." Salma brought a poignancy to the post-WWII boundaries established by Western powers while proclaiming the eventual return of its native people:
We'll return some day while generations listen
to the echoes of our feet.
We'll return with raging storms,
holy lightning and fire,
winged hope and sounds,
soaring eagles,
the dawn smiling on the deserts.
Some morning we'll return riding the crest of the tide,
our bloodied banners fluttering
above the glitter of spears.

One of the essays included in Aslan's collection is that of Jalal Al-E Ahmad titled, "Gharbzadegi" (page 389). This particular piece (written in 1962) posed one of the more salient questions of the day - how much Westernization is required or acceptable in order for the East to make peace with the world and itself? The word used in the title, "Gharbzadegi," was invented by Jalal to mean "Westoxification" or "Weststruckness." Jalal defined West as the "industrialized nations, or any country able to bring raw materials to a state of refinement with the aid of machines and put them on the market as merchandise." East he defined as "nonindustrialized nations, or that group of countries who are consumers of products manufactured in the West, products whose raw materials... come from the same part of the world, meaning from countries in the process of growing." His point was that not only is the East "Weststruck" in terms of products but it is also in danger of losing even its own mythology, belief systems, music, and deep sense of culture. I read on...

It strikes me that those involved with U.S. Representative (R) Peter King's recent hearings on Muslim radicalization might benefit from reading Tablet and Pen. If Representative King wants to understand the dynamics underway, he might start by studying some history, by examining the evidence of Western and Eastern writers who have commented over the years about "the East," and by asking Muslim Americans how they feel about being American, what they have contributed and how they have benefitted or suffered as American citizens. I can't predict whether Aslan's book will make it onto Representative King's or any other politician's reading list. If it does, it will be tough reading and it will cause considerable discomfort. As King himself is quoted as saying, "These hearings are absolutely essential. I am facing reality. My critics are not." ( - updated 3/8/2011 2:16:04 PM ET 2011-03-08T19:16:04) The reality is that precious few Americans have done any reading about Islam and the Middle East and the number who sought out their Muslim colleagues and neighbors to understand their beliefs is even fewer. Maybe these encounters are where real solutions to radicalization of all sorts could be found.

Aslan's collection of contemporary Arab authors will likely be of greatest direct interest to Arab and Muslim world readers because it is a repository of important thought and writing on issues for them. As someone shaped by the West, but growing in my appreciation for the East, Tablet and Pen opened new windows of understanding to which I know I will return. The first reading was difficult because I didn't have the historical and experiential awareness to understood all I read. I read and will continue to read on...

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