Literary Bridges to the Middle Eastern “Other”

W.W. Norton & Company, 2011
edited by Reza Aslan

Bloomsbury USA, 2012
by Selma Dabbagh

The Arab Spring has challenged Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern civil societies. We’ve seen insatiable demand for democracy in a region that most analysts had written off as politically passive or hopelessly brainwashed by authoritarianism and misogyny. We’ve seen formalized instruction and training on how to engage in nonviolent protest. We’ve seen defiant, hijab-wearing female activists—including an Egyptian young woman whose YouTube videos helped launch the revolution. We’ve seen brilliant social media campaigns that mobilized a courageous, tech-savvy populace despite brutal government crackdowns.

Two recently released works of literature, both written before the Arab Spring, introduce Westerners to an array of fictional characters and real people who exemplify the creativity, agency, and diversity that have always been present in the Middle East but have received scant attention in Western media. Tablet & Pen is an anthology of Middle Eastern poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that spans the last 100 years; incisive and often controversial works by both classic and lesser known authors are translated (some of them for the first time) into English from their native Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Turkish tongues. Out of It, an engrossing, suspenseful debut novel by British Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, explores the psychological effects of the Israeli siege, the ongoing conflict, and Palestinian factionalism on each member of a secular leftist, predominantly Gaza-based family.

“Fiction just has this extraordinary power to transport people and to make them able to understand other worlds because of the emotional connection that it provides,” says Dabbagh. Fahmida Riaz, a Pakistani writer of feminist poetry featured in Tablet & Pen agrees: “Literature always helps,” she says. “Had I not read British authors, I’d be just thinking of every Brit as oppressors.” Perhaps most importantly, says Rukhsana Ahmad, a translator of Urdu works in Tablet & Pen, literature helps erase “the film—the curtain of difference between us—that we often tolerate.”

Now, as the Arab Spring struggles forward and as Western governments continue to carry out devastating drone strikes and threaten war, ugly caricatures of “enemy” nations ought not blind us to the suffering caused by our governments’ policies. Nor should they guide our understanding of a culturally diverse region with a proud history of resilience and resistance.

An Anthology That Speaks to the Heart

Reza Aslan, the editor of Tablet & Pen, has witnessed the stereotype-busting effects of his anthology. At a 2010 Los Angeles book tour event, Aslan presented a poem by Palestinian writer Zakaria Tamer called “The Enemies,” which was written immediately after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The war was a colossal military defeat for the Arab dictatorships involved, but the dictators nevertheless spun stories that denied or diminished the apparent disaster. Tamer’s sarcastic, defiant poem explores how civilians—far from being brainwashed by their leaders—knowingly changed the Arabic references to these events in order to assert their dignity and resolve.

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