Tag Archives: islam

On Art, Literature and History: Essays by Naguib Mahfouz; Translated by Aran Byrne

51s8qRJdoUL Title: On Art, Literature and History: Essays
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translated from the Arabic by Aran Byrne
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386050007
Genre: Essays
Pages: 172
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It will take you some time to get into this book of essays by Naguib Mahfouz, one of the finest contemporary Arabic writers, however, once you do wade your way through and read a couple of essays, you are in for a rollercoaster ride. Mahfouz’s range is wide as the title suggests is diverse – right from art to history to literature, you can read his opinions (yeah it is that after all) and more than just opinions, you can feel what he tries to tell you because he does such a good job of using words to communicate, which to me most humans cannot.

Anyhow, back to the book. “On Art, Literature and History” is a collection of essays, most of which were penned in the 1930s, that bring to life not just Mahfouz’s views but also deal with the Arab world then and development of Islam. To me, it was a very interesting read, given how he blends philosophy and art with politics, without making it too boring or uninteresting for the reader. I think I was a fan anyway since the time I read his very popular Cairo trilogy and this one just pushed me over to becoming a major fan, I suppose.

This is the first volume that Speaking Tiger has come out with so I am expecting there to be more such volumes of his non-fiction writing spanning decades. A lot of people aren’t aware of his non-fiction pieces but I really hope that they go on and pick this collection and are more aware of what he could dabble in.

The writing is complex but only when it comes to language to some extent. The reading then becomes easy once you connect with the authors’ ideas and way of thinking. After all, essays aren’t easy to write. A balance between having to say so much and brevity must be maintained at all times. I most particularly enjoyed the literature section the most – as he spoke of Chekov to other Arabic authors as well. His sense of observation is superlative and that of course will be seen as you go along from essay to essay. At some points, I did feel the pace to be languid but that is I think true of most essay collections. Maybe some can read it in one gulp and some take their own time with it. Whichever way you’d like to read it, this one is one hell of a firecracker of a read.

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Book Review: A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai

Title: A Life in Words: Memoirs
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translator: M. Asaduddin
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Classics India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08618-4
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiography, Non-Fiction
Pages: 282
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is sometimes sad to know that readers (most of them) only remember Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf” or “The Quilt”. She has written a lot more and the “more” is even more interesting than “Lihaaf”. I remember the first time I was introduced to her works. I had turned twenty-three and my friend had taken me to watch a play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain” produced by Motley, – which featured two short stories by Manto, a story by Chughtai and an essay by her as well with reference to the court trial that almost got both the writers imprisoned in the 1940s for so-called “obscenity” in their writing.

I was mesmerized after watching the play. The urge to know more of her and read more works by her was immense. I had read a bit of Manto earlier, however Chughtai took my attention and held it there. Prithvi theatre bookshop was the ideal place to find her books, though translated in Hindi (now I cannot read Urdu. I only wish I can someday). I remember reading almost all of her books, except her memoirs, “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” which I ultimately did. I did struggle a bit as I do not read so many books in Hindi (and am not proud of the fact). The beauty of the language was brilliant. The words used to describe her life from early childhood to being a mother and a wife and a famous writer before all of that resonated way after finishing the book.

I received the much-awaited English translation of “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” from Penguin Books India, aptly titled, “A Life in Words: Memoirs” and delightfully translated by M. Asaduddin. The minute I started reading this edition, memories of the Hindi edition came sweeping by. The same intensity with which Ismat Aapa (I cannot think of anything better to call her) wrote in the original (I am assuming) is captured vividly and precisely in this translation.

One cannot define Ismat Chughtai’s character as anything but colourful and introspective. May be to a large extent that passed down to her by her large and varied family. When you read the memoirs, it almost feels like you are reading a story. One gets the necessary information about her works as well – from short stories to novels to essays (as footnotes) which is needed while reading about a writer. What I loved the most about this book was Chughtai’s family and their antics. Ismat Aapa was born into a large family – she had nine siblings – so one can only imagine the life lead during the Indian Independence and seeing times through Partition, her schooling, her youth, her stubborn nature, her want to get educated and then subsequently the need to write and tell tales.

Chughtai’s tone is fictional and caustic throughout the book. There are a lot of diversions which are fun, despite the danger of losing track of semi-plots and characters, but I guess that can be overlooked when reading memoirs. It is quite natural that the tone will shift, which works well to hang on to the reader’s attention. There are pieces which I loved – for instance, “Aligarh” – which depicts the writer’s hostel life, “In the Name of Those Married Women” – the piece on the much talked about courtroom trial of Manto and Ismat, “Sujat” – revolving around politics and “Chewing on Iron” – depicting class differences.

For me, reading this in English was a treat, thanks to the wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin, who has translated Chughtai’s other works. The translation is subtle and he doesn’t shy from using the words as used in Urdu by the writer sometimes, owing to the fact that there is a glossary as well, which serves the purpose well.

“A Life in Words: Memoirs” by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. The ideas in the book are numerous – from women’s liberation to class differences to the inner-life of a Muslim girl. Here is a book that is integral to its ideas, structure and words. I cannot recommend this one enough and while you are at it, please read more of Chughtai’s works. You will not be disappointed at all.

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Book Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Title: Habibi
Author: Craig Thompson
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0-571-24132-3
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 665
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember when I finished reading, “Blankets” for the first time. I was mesmerized by the writing and the illustration prowess of Craig Thompson. I had to procure a copy of, “Goodbye Chunky Rice”, which I loved a little more than “Blankets”. I had heard of, “Habibi” sometime ago and when I received a copy of it, I started and ended the book and still reeling from its effect.

Craig Thompson as an illustrator and a writer takes risks. Habibi is very different from the other graphic novels that I have read. It reads as a novel to begin with and the sketches are intricate and magnificent. One cannot begin to think what black and white drawings can do to the heart and the soul. To realize its potential, you have to read Habibi.

Set in timeless Middle East, the book fuses legend and myths with grim realities, following the lives of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents. Her husband is kind enough to teach her the script, how to read and how to write. She is kidnapped by dacoits, runs away from the slave market with an African child who she raises as her own for nine long years (names him Zam), living a sheltered life in the desert on an abandoned ship (it is beautifully drawn in the book), whores for desert nomads in exchange for food, is help captive in a Sultan’s harem, and is in a dungeon as well. Bottom-line: Her life is not rosy. The only comfort she found was with Zam and the years spent with him and she doesn’t know where he is. She ultimately finds him and finds out about his suffering, only to reach the end where there is much positivity and love. I am putting it loosely in this review as I do not want to reveal anything about the plot and what happens in the book.

Habibi (My Beloved) is a love story. Of a girl who takes in an orphan and is representative of everything she is to him – a friend, a mother, a guide, a sister and a lover. Habibi has several sub-plots. There is the emphasis on the heritage of Islam and Christianity and its similarities, which again are beautifully expressed. There is a lot of hard-facing reality in this book. For instance, when Zam is alone and without anyone by his side, the measures taken by him to survive are raw and realistic. The visuals are marvelously done and the message is heart-felt. For instance, Zam loves listening to stories told by Dodola, and it is done fascinatingly in the book.

For me Habibi was a journey of a different kind. It taught me a lot and also made me realize that at the core of it, humanity sometimes is not what you might expect it to be. Thompson balances the points of view between spirituality and lust delicately and brings the concept of, “struggle with oneself” quite eloquently throughout the book. Habibi celebrates life through it all and for me that is the highlight of this book. A must graphic novel to adorn your shelves for sure.

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Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

Bleaching her mustache and missing out on all the best parties are part of what Nina’s come to expect as a Pakistani-American teen with the strictest parents in town. At the start of her junior year in high school, she’s still living in the shadow of her genius older sister and still trying to figure out how to keep up socially in spite of her family’s fear that she’s becoming too “Um-ree-can-ized.”


Then the unexpected happens: Nina meets an attractive Italian exchange student named Asher—and Asher catches a glimpse of the dark line of hair running down the middle of her back. More humiliated than ever, Nina is certain that Asher will prefer button-nosed blond Serena over her scholarly, hirsute self.

I started laughing from page 1 of SG, and not just because of the Jolene and SAT antonyms and the fact that we’re hearing a story about South Asian immigrant lives. Naturally, overbearing traditionalist parents and obsessive academic regimes are resonant themes with me, and it’s great to finally get a window open in that house, but more so, the writing in SG is light and witty and humorous and the teenage protagonist, Nina Khan, is actually loveable, as the book jacket promises (prompts?).

The dialogue and pacing is great, and I found myself wanting to know what Nina was going to do or think next, even if it was just a tiny tumult versus a grand upheaval. Her two best friends are nicely depicted (though it took me some time to separate them in my head). I especially enjoyed her father’s character.

The great thing about skunk girl is how realistic I found it. I laughed at Nina’s woes concerning her South Asian “curse” and sympathized as her parents’ heaped responsibility and tradition upon her, but I hoped that she would eventually appreciate her parents, her family, her culture. Nina chooses to sneak out to a party in hopes to see Asher and do some underage drinking with her friends, but quickly finds out that it may not be for her. It was nice to see Nina make not the greatest decisions and learn from them.

Teens of all backgrounds will be able to relate to Nina’s struggle in reconciling her own identity with her family’s culture. While the girl-crushing-on-boy story may be familiar, the funny and touching Skunk Girl is truly a novel of a different stripe.

Skunk Girl; Karim, Sheba; Penguin India; Rs. 250

The Arabs by Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan’s magisterial, though idiosyncratically selective, “The Arabs: A History” is a dense but worthwhile and illuminating read. Rogan, who spent his childhood in Beirut and Cairo, teaches at Oxford and is Director of the University’s Middle East Centre. He is a former student of Albert Hourani, whose seminal “History of the Arab Peoples,” published in 1993, this book successfully complements.

“The Arabs” is densely packed with facts and dates. It is a plum pudding of a book rather than a crème brulee; it took me about fifty percent longer to read than most books of comparable length. It is not, however, in any way tedious. The narrative has strong forward momentum and is organized (unlike Churchill’s celebrated Savoy pudding) around clear themes. While Rogan writes with a deadpan seriousness, he also enlivens his history with anecdotes (such as the story of the exasperated Algerian Pasha who could not resist striking the French Consul with his fly switch during a heated debate in 1827) and with quotations from contemporary diaries and memoirs. We thus hear directly from the likes of Budhari al Hallaq, an eighteenth century Damascus barber, Rifa’a al-Taktawi, an Egyptian imam who visited Paris in the early nineteenth century and was appalled to observe that “men are slaves to women here…whether they are pretty or not,” and Leila Khaled, a female Palestinian terrorist of the late 1960s.


Rogan begins his history in 1516 (the first example of his selectiveness), with the Ottoman conquest. He then divides Arab history into several phases: the Ottoman reign, the period of Western Colonial intervention, Arab Nationalism, the Cold War, the Rise of Oil, the emergence of Islamism, and the War on Terror. For the Arabs, Rogan observes, history has been one continuous “cycle of subordination to other people’s rules.” The colonial powers’ carve-up of the Arab map into ill-fitting states (especially the Jewish one) has had lasting consequences that will be difficult to untangle. This is his main theme, though he does recognize that “corrupt and authoritarian” indigenous regimes also play a role and that at some point Arabs need to assume greater responsibility for their own destiny if they are to overcome what Samir Kassir, the murdered Lebanese journalist, diagnosed as the “Arab malaise.”

Rogan is not merely selective in the period that he chooses to cover (two thirds of his book focuses on the twentieth century), he also dwells almost entirely on political and military history. There is little sociological exposition of who the “Arabs” are – what, for example, other than Islam and language, have Algerians in common with Syrians; there is little discussion of Arab society, the schism between Sunni and Shia, or indeed the nature of the tribal loyalties that we have witnessed in the recent conflicts in Iraq. The coverage of Saudi Arabia – surely a major factor not only in the region but in the world – is quite perfunctory as is that of Iran, which while not an Arab nation, is a major player – as much as some of the despised Western powers – in the region’s military and political balance and also demonstrates a prototype of the type of Islamic State which would likely appear, as Rogan asserts, if free and fair elections were held today. He does not extrapolate either on how his adverse cycle might be extended by the putative (or Putinative) resurgence of Russia, the emerging geopolitical projection of China, or even, possibly, of Turkey which is slowly re-engaging on the scene.

Does Rogan have an axe to grind? A critical examiner might argue that the tone of disapproval he applies to Israel and the United States (at least pre-Obama) is stronger than that which he directs at Arab strongmen and Palestinian terrorists (or “fighters” as he generally calls them), or that his distaste for British and French colonialism stands in contrast to his mild nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, but this is surely no partisan polemic. Rogan’s book is strongly fact-based, and he provides the reader with ample material and perspective from which to form his or her own judgment. It is part of his mission to explain the Arab point of view and he does this while upholding his professional objectivity.

If Rogan strikes any wrong note, it is surely in his conclusion. He claims to see grounds for hope, the “very beginnings of a virtuous circle.” This optimism is hardly supported by his portrait of precarious authoritarian regimes holding down the lid on latent Islamist takeovers, with outside powers continuing to toss banana skins into the mix and the Arabs themselves still subject to a sort of Al Sod’s law in their own efforts (witness the disaster of Dubai World). Nor is it consistent with his comment in his Introduction (admittedly some 500 pages previously) that “the Arab World views the future with growing pessimism.” This is especially true if one defines the goal, as Rogan does in his Epilogue, as “human rights and accountable government, security and economic growth.” Ha!

Arabs, The; Rogan, Eugene; Allan Lane; Penguin Press; £30.00