Tablet & Pen

Tonight the earth has bid all its sins

farewell. The snow's pallid piety

conceals the earth-dweller's blasphemies.

This silvery mask on nature's black face

is the world's most beautiful lie.

              --from "False Dawn"

This arresting image of snow is the work of an Iranian poet, Nader Naderpour, and has been recently translated from the Persian. It is just one of countless delights to be found in Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East, an anthology edited by Reza Aslan in conjunction with the online magazine Words Without Borders. The project was born out of a conviction that we Americans can no longer afford to know so very little about the Middle East, the ancient, infinitely complex society in which we are now deeply mired. "[F]rom the 'civilizing mission' of European colonialism to the 'clash of civilization' mentality of today," Aslan comments, "the West's perception of the Middle East as a mysterious and exotic, savage and erotic place has changed little in the more than two centuries since Napoleon's fleet set sail for Egypt. The aim of this book is to provide a different, more authentic perception of this rich and complex region, an image not fashioned by the descriptions of invaders, but rather one that arises from the diverse literatures of its most acclaimed poets and writers."


Working with three regional editors and seventy-seven translators, Aslan has brought forth an admirably comprehensive collection of poems, short stories, novel excerpts, essays, and memoirs from countries stretching from Morocco to Iran, translated from Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and Persian. All these pieces date from the last century or so; many have never until now been translated into English. Together, they convey a literary treasure of which most readers in the West are scarcely aware. "'[W]hile it may be too much to expect that a collection of literature can reframe perceptions of an entire region," Aslan writes, "it is our hope that this book can go some way toward providing a new paradigm for viewing the mosaic that is the modern Middle East."


Aslan begins in the years just before the First World War, with the Ottoman Empire heading toward its final decline and the British Raj already running into trouble in India. Ottoman literary traditions were becoming formalized and stilted; innovators like Khalil Gibran urged writers to revitalize their native language. "Let your national zeal," he wrote, "spur you to depict the mysteries of pain and the miracles of joy that characterize life in the East, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to adopt the simplest events in your surroundings and clothe them with the fabric of your imagination than to translate the most beautiful and the most respected of what the Westerners have written." Western genres like the novel and the short story, hitherto unknown in the East, were now being adapted to local needs. Husayn Haykal's Zaynab (1913) was the first Arab novel; Tawfiq al-Hakim brought the genre further with his Diary of a Country Prosecutor, excerpted here in a translation by Abba Eban. In India, the poet Miraji would also revolutionize his genre by fusing Indian and Western styles.


Imperialism and the scars of colonial rule are easily recognized as the common thread running through the works in this anthology. Throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia, the twentieth century witnessed the fever of revolt and the ecstasy of independence. "Rise up!" exhorted Muhammad Iqbal, the great Punjabi poet who inspired the idea and the birth of Pakistan; "…The rule of the people is close at hand/Erase all traces of the ancient Raj!" The wares on offer in Tablet & Pen illustrate what Aslan calls "the myriad ways in which literature became a tool for forming national identities," and in perusing its pages we witness poets and fiction writers not only expressing the aspirations of their people but even helping to create them. The enormously influential Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet was one of those who contributed to a new conception of patriotism. "I love my country:/I have swung on its plane trees, I have stayed in its prisons." His poem "Since I Was Thrown Inside," a reflection on what has gone on in his world during the ten years he has spent in prison, is characteristic of the era: to be incarcerated was practically a badge of honor for those involved in the struggle of throwing off the colonial yoke. Sa'adat Hasan Manto's memoir For Freedom's Sake (excerpted here and translated from the Urdu) sums up the era's fervent mood:

       People chanted slogans, staged demonstrations, and were sent to prison by the hundreds. Courting arrest had become a favorite pastime: you were apprehended in the morning and released by the evening. You were tried in the court and thrown in jail for a few months. You came out, shouted another slogan, and got arrested all over again.

       Those days were so full of life!

But after the euphoria of independence there came the let-down of reality, as the erstwhile colonial tyrants were replaced with new, native-born ones. In many countries the writers whose words had helped create the new states soon became their regimes' most vocal critics. The Pakistani Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for instance, was imprisoned as a dissident in the 1950s; his poems "Freedom's Dawn (August 1947)," "August 1952," and "Bury Me Under Your Pavements," beautifully translated from the Urdu by V. G. Kiernan, encapsulate the pain of bruised ideals.

This leprous daybreak, dawn night's fangs have mangled—

This is not that long-looked-for break of day,

Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades

Set out, believing that in heaven's wide void

Somewhere must be the stars' last halting-place,

Somewhere the verge of night's slow-washing tide,

Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.

              --from "Freedom's Dawn (August 1947)"

At mid-century, Turkish writers entered what is now remembered as a Golden Age of literature, with the last of the Ottoman literary flourishes swept aside. Attention was paid to the poor and obscure, and writing about village life became a political act in itself: an excerpt from Yasar Kamal's Mehmed, My Hawk provides a marvelous example of the genre, while Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's A Mind At Peace recounts the doings of deracinated urban Istanbullus. In the Arab world a new "postcolonial" generation of writers included some world-class figures, including the Syrian poet Adonis, whose "Grave for New York" is excerpted here, and the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz—represented in this anthology by a brilliant segment from The Seventh Heaven.


The 1950s, '60s, and '70s saw Iran between two revolutions, dealing with issues decidedly different from those that faced the Arab world. Aslan has included some superb examples of Iranian literature. Houshang Golshiri's famous story "My China Doll" is here, as is Goli Taraghi's "The Grand Lady of My Soul"—an unforgettable view of the early days of the 1979 revolution seen through the detached gaze of a skeptic. Aslan also gives us poems by Ahmad Shamloo, Reza Barahani, and some extraordinary verses by Forugh Farrokhzad, arguably the most famous woman in the history of Persian literature. Farrokhzad, who died tragically in the 1960s at the age of thirty-two, speaks of familiar subjects with a startlingly personal and original voice:

I have sinned a rapturous sin

In a warm enflamed embrace,

Sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,

arms violent and ablaze.

                --from "Sin"

In the last section of the anthology Aslan opts for a porous, transnational format. "[J]ust as the world is slowly becoming borderless, so too will this final section of our collection remain without borders—one writer passing the baton to the next, free of all ethnic or nationalist divisions yet bound together by a shared sense of historical consciousness." I have to admit that this seems a bit fanciful to me; there are real differences in the historical consciousness of Algeria and Yemen, for instance—or, as recent news items have reminded us, Saudi Arabia and Iran—and while reading this section I found myself constantly referring to the Author Biographies at the back of the book for dates, nationalities, context.  


But this is not a reference book, nor has Aslan tried to make it one. It is, rather, a sampler, something to whet the appetite and inspire the reader to dig more deeply into the national literatures on offer. And it is not only the authors who are a revelation but the translators as well, including Kieran, Sholeh Wolpé, Basharat Peer, Edouard Roditi, and Erdag Göknar. Great translators are almost as rare as great writers, and it is a joy to see so many of them represented in one volume.

About the Columnist
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

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