February 2006

Julia Ramey

features

A Middle Eastern Fiction Reader

Perhaps it’s my fault for falling too much in love with London and Paris as a teenager, or maybe it’s American society’s fault for not including Middle Eastern studies in more of its curricula. Or perhaps the place is just too complicated, and too far away. Whatever the reason, when we went to war, I realized I knew next to nothing about the Middle East.

This troubled me, especially when the perpetual news dispatches from the region became redundant and boring in spite of the horrors they contained. They were beyond my comprehension; I needed context. So after a time, in an effort to understand, I turned to a familiar source of comfort: the novel.

First came The Kite Runner, passed along by a friend; I read it in a breathless nine hours. Khaled Hosseini’s remarkable story of Afghanistan not only offers a riveting, touching tale and deeply engaging characters, but it tells of the country’s complicated and tragic history of poverty, invasion and racial conflicts.

The book opens as its narrator, Amir, is growing up in Kabul during the final peaceful years of its monarchy (the late '60s and early '70s). His best friend is Hassan, the son of his family’s live-in servant. Hassan is a Hazara, an ethnic minority that some of the native Pushtuns wish expelled, one way or another. Amir and Hassan’s friendship is shattered when Hassan becomes victim to a horrific hate crime that Amir witnesses but does not try to prevent; the two grow irrevocably apart when Amir and his father flee to the United States upon the Soviet invasion. Amir’s guilt-ridden adult life consumes the book’s second half: As he struggles to adapt to a new country, care for his aging father and start a family, he searches for ways to make up for abandoning his friend at his most urgent moment of need.

The book was a phenom; it remains a paperback bestseller, surely driven by interests similar to my own. Hosseini’s story barely touches upon September 11th and the American-waged war in Afghanistan before it ends, but it does portray the brutal reign of the Taliban, at one point bringing Amir face to face with one of its most flagrant (if fictional) leaders. A public sporting event is turned into a public execution; the Talibs roam in trucks with their signature guns, beards and black turbans. Villages are burned and houses lack roofs -- this is the Afghanistan many of us know. But to glimpse the nation when it was peaceful is the true gift of Hosseini’s excellent book: It gives us hope that the fledgling nation can succeed again.

The Kite Runner is a very masculine story, filled with violence, anger and pride. So Laila Halaby’s West of the Jordan is a pleasant follow-up, a deeply feminine book that explores a host of fundamental conflicts: those between Israel and Palestine, Islam and the West and men and women. Halaby knows each first-hand, as the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother. She moved to Arizona from Lebanon when she was five but later studied in Jordan. Her book, the product of her time abroad, consists of four first-person narratives of female Arab cousins, told in a cycle of voices.

Two of the women have moved to America: One, Soraya, distresses her family by dancing in public and dressing provocatively; the other, young Khadija, struggles to reconcile her family’s conservativeness with her American friends’ precocity. Mawal lives in the West Bank, firmly ensconced in Palestinian tradition. And the most compelling tale belongs to Hala, a Jordanian attending school in the United States who thinks she’s fully pulled away from her past and her family’s traditions, but a return to Jordan finds her consumed by romantic love for an older male cousin.

While the book is more internal voices and less external action, the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never quite disappears from its periphery. In one touching but compelling scene, Hala recalls the time she and her cousin tried to paddle in a boat across the sea “home,” to occupied Palestine. Along the way they were stopped by soldiers; their family waited terrified on the beach until they returned. Similarly, Islamic tradition clashes with Western ideals, whether it’s choosing between marriage and education or between a native robe and jeans. And we encounter the particular difficulties of emigration: Halaby’s Jordan loses many of its young men to the United States. At one point, she writes of those who return to visit, only to leave as soon as they can: “To make a long story short, they just couldn’t stand it.”

West of the Jordan is more a collection of short stories than a coherent novel. The narrative is at times confusing -- the voices of the four women aren’t distinct enough to make for a smooth read. But Halaby compensates by the degree of intimacy she offers to her reader; we feel privileged to have such access to the innermost feelings of Islamic women -- conservative and liberal -- whom we mostly know as veiled mysteries, moving in the periphery of photos taken far away.

Masculinity again prevails in Moshin Hamid’s Moth Smoke. The book is perhaps the opposite of Halaby’s in subject matter, and also in style: a riveting plot replaces artful lyricism. The book tracks the downfall of a young Pakistani man from Lahore named Darashikoh -- Daru for short -- who, in a cruel swoop that’s part his fault, part society’s, loses his job and succumbs to a life of drugs and crime. He lives on the fringe of the city’s pill-popping, hard-drinking wealthy elite; even though he lacks the family status and cushy inheritance, his best friend, the wealthy Ozu, keeps him mostly involved with the social scene he so craves. When he loses his job at a bank, he tries desperately to maintain his social position. But his pride keeps him from taking any menial job, his drug habit makes it tougher and tougher to leave his house and his lack of money drives him to desperation and the careless measures it brings. By the time he begins a destructive affair with the beautiful Mumtaz, Ozu’s wife, Daru is almost completely lost.

In the style reminiscent of Jay McInerney’s in Bright Lights, Big City, Hamid makes Daru’s frenetic collapse both hilarious and painful for the reader. One minute he is bribing a cop who’s told him that he could go to prison for life for drinking as a Muslim; the next he’s doing ecstasy and dancing in a sweaty mass with Lahore’s young and rich. The scenes featuring the party-happy, wealthy youths of Lahore are particularly captivating, first because their revelry is mostly illegal and because such moments shine a glaring light on the wide gulf between Pakistan’s rich and poor.

In the background is another of the Muslim world’s lingering conflicts: Pakistan’s nuclear competition with neighboring India. Daru and his friends speak with despair when they find that their neighbor has successfully tested a bomb, and they take to rejoicing in the streets when Pakistan tests one of its own. Also lingering in the background are fundamental Islamists, whom Daru refers to disparagingly and flippantly as “fundos”; one, a former schoolmate, tries to recruit him to come to a meeting. Daru chooses heroin instead. It is easy to see, in the context of so much poverty, unemployment and recklessness, how a young man might succumb to one or the other.

Perhaps the best-known author of the four is Orhan Pamuk, and his Snow is the richest read of all. At over 400 pages, it is also the longest, but Pamuk’s tale is worth the time. The author of Black Book, My Name is Red among others here spins the tale of Ka, a Turkish poet who returns to Istanbul upon the death of his mother after being in political exile in Germany for ten years. Upon his return, he hears of a rash of suicides in the remote town of Kars, near the Russian border. The victims are young women whom the public has taken to calling “the headscarf girls”: According to rumor, they had each killed themselves as a result of the secular Turkish government’s ban on headscarves in schools. Unable to choose between their religion and their education, they ended their lives.

When Ka comes to investigate this situation, he finds himself instantly at the conflict’s center and in love with the beautiful Ipek, a woman he’d met years before. While he is there, the city becomes hopelessly barricaded by a snow storm, and the local military stages a coup, killing many Islamic fundamentalists. Ka finds himself an accidental intermediary between a fundamentalist militant and a Turkish government and populace that’s leaning westward. Many in the city celebrate Ka’s art and his exile, but others see his practice of poetry as atheistic and threatening. But even as the poor, crumbling Kars becomes an impromptu war zone and his life becomes more endangered, Ka is consumed with the agonizing ecstasy of being in love and produces a rash of poetry as the snow keeps falling.

The book’s central conflict, which matches Western intellectualism against Islamic fundamentalism, is made especially fascinating by current events: In 2005, the Turkish government brought criminal charges against Pamuk after he publicly implied that the mass killing of Armenians and Kurds in Anatolia in the early twentieth century was part of a genocidal campaign, something the Turkish government denies. All charges have since been dropped, but Panuk’s case became central in the debate over whether Turkey restricts free speech, something the EU has raised concerns about during ongoing membership talks.

It is worth mentioning that the overarching tone of each these books is not a happy one. Life is difficult in many parts of the Middle East, thanks to war, unemployment, and poverty, and these books show that with an unflinching eye. At one point in Snow when the small Kars revolution is at its bloodiest, Pamuk writes: “I don’t want to upset my readers any more than necessary, so I won’t go into details.” But the reader is long scarred from the gun battles that have already occurred, and from the heartbreak of city’s impoverished desperation. From the suicides of Panuk’s Snow to Daru’s heroin addiction in Moth Smoke, to the brutal attack on Hassan in The Kite Runner and the soldier-ridden checkpoints of West of the Jordan, the Middle East’s hardships linger with the reader, and make the news reports all the more real. Even if the person you associate with hardship is fictional, it helps to have a Daru or a Ka or a Soraya to embody the region’s conflicts. Now every time I see a civilian shooting a gun into the air in celebration, protest, or sheer boredom, I will think of the moment in Moth Smoke when Daru explains how his mother died: She simply went to sleep on the roof, and a nearby reveler shot a rifle into the air. When the bullet came down, it killed her.

But each novel compensates for its darkness by turning the other eye to the particular beauty and sensuality of the Middle East and Arab culture. The misery of life is tempered by the exoticness of the landscape, giving each novel that familiar escapism we look for in a good book. The Kite Runner portrays an Afghanistan nothing like the bullet-scarred, sandy landscape we all see nowadays. Instead, Amir and Hassan play amidst pomegranate and almond trees, often draped in new snow. They run through bustling bazaars and attend large family dinners. And then there are the kite tournaments that give the book its title: scores of kites in the sky, each connected to a boy trying to cut down the kite next to his, until only his remains, sailing through the sky. West of the Jordan is laden with sensuality, from the images of hennaed bridal parties and intricate scarves to the cooking of musakhan and the refreshing sound of names we’ve never heard before. Hamid’s Lahore is less lovely, its sweltering streets full of dying dogs and roaming drug addicts, but relief comes in the form of cooling monsoons. And even Ka finds inspiration in the falling-apart city of Kars—or at least in the beauty of the falling snow and the aging Russian-built mansions. And, of course, in the green eyes of the woman he loves.

For the most part, Islamic militants are portrayed as members of a fringe culture, something separate from the essence of the Middle East and its people. The women of West of the Jordan seem troubled by any soldiers, Israeli or Palestinian; Hosseini’s Talibs are vile beyond compare. Ka is a borderline atheist, Daru neither prays nor mentions God.

This relative distaste for Islamic fundamentalism is perhaps what has made these books successful in the West. But more important than their political undertones is the context they provide, something difficult to find in the blizzard of news from the region. Like the best works of fiction, these four novels transport, entertain, and haunt. But they haunt in the most positive sense: by stripping ignorance away.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Books
ISBN 1594480001

West of the Jordan by Laila Halaby
Bluestreak
ISBN 0807083593

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Picador
ISBD 0312273231

Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
Knopf
ISBN: 0375406972