Wednesday, December 19, 2007
And We Have a Land
And we have a land without borders, like our idea
of the unknown, narrow and wide. A land …
when we walk in its map it becomes narrow with us,
and takes us to an ashen tunnel, so we shout
in its labyrinth: And we still love you, our love
is a hereditary illness. A land … when
it banishes us to the unknown … it grows. And
the willows and adjectives grow. And its grass grows
and its blue mountains. The lake widens
in the soul’s north. Wheat rises in the soul’s
south. The lemon fruit gleams like a lantern
in the emigrant’s night. Geography glistens
like a holy book. And the chain of hills
becomes an ascension place to higher … to higher.
“If I were a bird I would have burned my wings,” someone says
to his exiled self. The scent of autumn becomes
the image of what I love … The light rain leaks
into the heart’s drought, and the imagination opens up
to its sources, and becomes place, the only
real one. And everything from the faraway
returns as a primitive countryside, as if earth
were still creating itself to meet Adam, descending
to the ground floor from his paradise. Then I say:
That’s our land over there pregnant with us … When was it
that we were born? Did Adam get married twice? Or will we
be born a second time
to forget sin?
- Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden
(Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah)
The Strangest Creature on Earth
You're like a scorpion, my brother,
you live in cowardly darkness
like a scorpion.
You're like a sparrow, my brother,
always in a sparrow's flutter.
You're like a clam, my brother,
closed like a clam, content,
And you're frightening, my brother,
like the mouth of an extinct volcano.
not five --
unfortunately, you number millions.
You're like a sheep, my brother:
when the cloaked drover raises his stick,
you quickly join the flock
and run, almost proudly, to the slaughterhouse.
I mean you're strangest creature on earth --
even stranger than the fish
that couldn't see the ocean for the water.
And the oppression in this world
is thanks to you.
And if we're hungry, tired, covered with blood,
and still being crushed like grapes for our wine,
the fault is yours --
I can hardly bring myself to say it,
but most of the fault, my dear brother, is yours.
- Nazim Hikmet, 1947
(Translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk)
Sunday, December 09, 2007
The day was exhausting if only because my Saturdays are usually terribly hectic and I need all of Sunday to recuperate – usually by sleeping straight through the day. It was also emotionally tiring – a terrible mix of happy moments and ridiculously bizarre ones. I need to read happier things because breaking out into tears for most of the train ride is not good. Later on, I had copious amounts of delicious fatty Malay food for lunch, and had a box of the best lokum in the world all the way from Istanbul awaiting me at Turkish class. And then I was gifted this lovely book by friends over dinner of very good Indian food (and also very good wine). As I told my friend, I am probably the most obvious person in the world to buy gifts for. Also a shout out to the person who called in the middle of the night after getting my number from god only knows where - thank you.
Birthday wish that has been constant since forever is to have a house full of books. (And to have them magically clean and arrange themselves, too). I am convinced though, that I am going to turn into one of those old people who live all alone in a house full of books and it takes weeks for people to even find out that they have died . Really, I can even see it happening. Oh well, there’s a lot to be done next year and the thought of a lot of it scares me. I just hope everything works out.
No, really, I think Pamuk is the closest I actually come to being in love with someone. I KNOW I need help, but what to do?
Might be a side effect of reading A.B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem, but I doubt it. It’s called falling in between the cracks, no? The book is excellent. No, beyond excellent.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
My favourite book cover of the year – Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers.
I know, it’s a bit clichéd but I really love it. (I remember reading in the introduction that Aslam had to ask for permission from some acquaintance to use this picture). The book is very nice too.
In the history category I really liked the cover of Mark Mazower’s brilliant The Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Mazower is a brilliant historian and I have been so impressed by every book of his that I have read. Dark Continent is an excellent (and slightly revisionist) history of the Europe since after WWI.
Book cover that has been making my head want to explode (which is not good because I’m reading it at the moment) – Zulfu Livaneli’s Bliss (Mutluluk in Turkish). Apparently Turkey and Afghanistan are one and the same place. The other cover for the book isn’t bad though. Too bad I couldn’t find it. The book itself is so-so; easy reading on the train.
Previous post on book covers here. The only reason Other Colours didn’t make an appearance here is because I didn’t buy the Faber version. I think they usually do wonderful covers. Knopf’s aren’t bad either.
Anyway, so, what are your favourite book covers of the year?
Thursday, November 29, 2007
This from Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of Fatih Akin’s Head On (Gegen Die Wand/ Duvara Karşı).
I can not agree more. I have wanted to see Head On ever since I saw Akins İstanbul Hatırası: Köprüyü Geçmek (in English Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) (post on the movie coming up next) at a National Museum screening more than a year back. I finally got down to it and ordered both movies on Amazon and they arrived last week.
I have already seen Head On twice and it affected me on second viewing as much if not more than the first time I saw it. The original German title Gegen Die Wand translates as ‘Against the Wall’ but ‘Head On’, I think, is a more apt description of what one feels as a viewer right from the moment when we are introduced to Cahit Tomruk, who makes a living in Hamburg collecting empty beer bottles and seems half stoned to death. It’s altogether not surprising when five minutes into the movie he smashes his car quite literally into a wall. Diagnosed as a possible suicide case he is admitted for treatment at a state run psychiatric facility where he meets Sibel Güner, another patient of the same ilk.
Her interest in Cahit is piqued upon hearing his Turkish name and the first thing she says, chasing after him as he walks out of the doctors office, is “Will you marry me?” She’s in for slashing her wrists, overwhelmed by the stifling dominance of her father and brother, and wants a sham marriage to get away. Cahit maybe a bum, but he is a Turkish bum and she just needs a roommate who will let her out of their grip – to live, to breathe, to fuck, as she puts it – and in return she will cook, clean and keep house.
Cahit brushes her off, but Sibel, nothing if not persistent, doesn’t stop at slashing her wrists again to make her point – this time even following Cahits advice as to how wrists should be slit. (Earlier he had told her she must not have been serious about dying, cutting ones wrists across “is shit”.) Why Cahit eventually agrees to marry her is obscure. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film he goes home after being pestered no end by Sibel and tries on a tuxedo that seems quite literally from another age and stares at his reflection in the dusty TV screen. In the midst of the mess that are his life and house, she perhaps represents some sort of hope, some human connection, which he seems sorely in need of.
At first that connection manifests itself in Cahit hurling curses at Sibel at their wedding, then sharing their wedding dinner, both staring into space heavily stoned, and over time into a slow willingness to re-embrace life. She is reveling in her freedom and as they get more comfortable with each other, become friends, some of it rubs onto him too. Of course, you know that love will come next, but to Cahit and Sibel it comes as a surprise. Head On is not in the business of playing to clichés though and the two protagonists are on the same page only for a heartbreakingly fleeting moment before a most random act of anger destroys that hope, with Cahit in jail and Sibel fleeing to Istanbul, promising to wait for him.
Head On doesn’t play as a typical immigrant tale either and perhaps that’s why it captures little vignettes of immigrant life so well. Nor is this a story that neatly compartmentalises East and West. Cahit and Sibel converse in German through out and they are definitely on the outskirts of their communities. When Cahit goes to ask for Sibels hand in marriage, her brother asks what he did to his Turkish given that it’s awful. “I threw it away,” Cahit replies with a mix of anger and defiance. I loved the scene where Cahit goes to meet Sibels cousin in Istanbul and suddenly completely at a loss of words to express why it is important that she tell him where Sibel is, breaks into halting, inelegant English. He can’t speak German here and his Turkish just doesn’t suffice and that moment captures beautifully and exactly what it means to be stuck between cultures.
Istanbul and Turkey are foreign too and represent aptly an opportunity to start afresh without being totally at sea. In his review Lane mentions how much of a distance the characters seemed to have traveled during the film and that was exactly what I felt. It’s almost as if you have lived a life with these people and seeing them at the end makes the mind boggle at the thought that these were the very same Cahit and Sibel you were introduced to at the beginning of the film. That distance and the aging and growing of these two characters are what make the end of the movie fall perfectly into place too. There is hope, there is a new beginning but there is also, as the song that plays at the end says ‘infinite sadness’.
Monday, November 26, 2007
A new Daniel Day-Lewis release is so exciting! What do you expect when the man does like four movies in ten years (really, those are the stats). And when he's as fucking fabulous as ever. And fabulous includes hot .
Day-Lewis was on the cover of the NYT magazine last weekend. It's an interesting (if long) article. I love that he admits he has 'the right nose' and was more than amused at the fact that he spends hours at the Manolo Blahnik store studying the construction and design of shoes (he was apprenticing as a cobbler in Rome when Scorsese came looking for him to play Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York).
Apparently there is a lot of Oscar hype around the role as well. It would be cool if he won considering he was robbed, robbed, when he didn't win for Gangs. Also, finally a movie to look forward to. Is it just me or has there not been a single decent Hollywood movie out this year?
Sigh. I remember when I first saw The Age of Innocence. Day-Lewis is perfect as Newland Archer. And so beautiful.
 Ok, admittedly I haven't seen No Country for Old Men. And also, no The Kite Runner is not something I am looking forward to.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Another interview (quite an old but interesting one) talks about the trouble he has had with publishers and translators. “Guneli’s translation of The New Life in England received The London Times award for the worst translation of the year, while the American Translators Association gave her the prize for the best translation, which made only more confusion for me.”
Pamuk was also on The Charlie Rose show a couple of months back and I really loved the interview. He is just completely adorable. You can watch it here.
After a post on the intermingling of food cultures, it’s perhaps apt that I should write about dance cultures. A couple of weeks ago at a seminar and dinner gathering I was attending on ‘Islam and the Arts’, the roots of the Malay Zapin dance were traced back to the Muslim missionaries who came to the region from Hadramut in Yemen. Though traditionally performed only by males during religious functions the many variants of Zapin are now part of the secular artistic heritage of the area, with women dancers a common sight too.
All of this reminds of another favourite, Hikmet, and his apt and beautiful words:
Ne devlet ne para
The world is not run by governments or money
 I didn’t know till about a year back that Chaiyya Chaiyya (and also of course Thaiyya Thaiyya) were inspired by Bulleh Shahs famous poem. I did however know that Rabbi Shergill was singing Baba Bulleh Shah in his lovely song Bullah Ki Jaana. (Translation here.)
 I need to mention that Faiz more than anyone makes me cry. Last week I wept just listening to his ghazals and I do not know why. I just remember hugging my pillow and sobbing away. With some of his poems its even worse - I remember reading a thin little volume in the library and before I realised it tears were streaming down my cheeks. So there is only so much Faiz I can take at a time and I think listening to Dam Mast Qalandar has been one way of not getting overly depressed.
 The poem in full
Bir mektup beklerim müjdeli
belki de öldüğüm gün gelir
mutlaka gelir ama
Ne devlet ne para
insanın emrinde dünya
belki yüz yıl sonra
mutlaka bu böyle olacak ama
I write poems
they don't get published
but they will
I'm waiting for a letter with good news
maybe it will arrive the day I die
but it will come for sure
The world is not run by governments or money
but people rule
a hundred years from now
but it will be for sure
Nazim Hikmet, 12 September 1957
The American Poetry Review, Jan/Feb 2002
I get thrilled when I can read Turkish and understand it. The downside is that translations somehow don’t match up to the original then. But, well, they bring their own perspective.
Monday, November 12, 2007
This from Bert Fragner’s essay in the book, From the Caucuses to the Roof of the World: a culinary adventure:
Apart from the political animosity which pervaded political relations between the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs and the Ottomans there also existed a special network of hegemony within which these two superpowers were rivals and partners at the same time. This means that new commercial and consumer goods bought by the Spaniards from the American continents to the European sphere found their immediate way into the Ottoman Empire, even earlier than to other European regions. Therefore, the ‘Indian chicken’ then recently imported from Mexico, was directly transported from Spain to the Ottomans, who took over its denomination as Hindi or Hindi Tavuq (tawuq Hindi in Syrian Arabic until today). The term for this bird in Austrian German, 'Indian', indicates that Habsburg subjects in central Europe became acquainted with it through Ottoman help! So strong was Ottoman hegemony that, as far away as England, the notion of that crisp and tasty poultry as Turkish must have been more deeply ingrained than any awareness of it as ‘Indian’ (i.e. American) origin; in English – an in English-speaking America – it is called ‘turkey’.
I remember bursting into a fit of giggles in class when I found out that the turkey in Turkish is actually called Hindi. My teacher asked me what was so funny, and before I could answer, started chuckling himself. The mixing and forming of cultures is a strange and fascinating thing. Food, music, dance, vocabularies, stories – these are all so fluid, living, constantly evolving.
As Sami Zubaida asserts in his essay National, Communal and Global Dimensions in Middle Eastern Food Cultures, even though the map of the modern world is one of nation states, these states and their societies are subject global influences outside their control. Plus, geographical areas tend to share certain cultural idioms that predate the formation of these states. It’s interesting to see the commonalities in food across the Middle East, Central Asia all the way to northern India. Though as the essay points out there is a sharp difference between foods of the ex-Ottoman empire and the lands between Anatolia through the Iranian plateau to the Hindu Khush and up to the Tarim Basin are quite untouched by Mediterranean food influences.
Then of course there are Central Asian influences as well. Charles Perry in his essay The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava traces the fascination of the nomadic Turks (from Central Asia who began invading Anatolia in the 11th century) with layered breads, drawing the links between the various types of layered breads among the Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tartars, Kazakhs etc that eventually led to the filo that is the base for the not only the baklava but even the apple strudel.
Dumplings are interesting as well – virtually present in the cooking of every country it seems. Though I would probably guess that they spread from China (dimsum and jiaozi – I love them!) - Uzbek manty and Turkish mantı (see Elizabeths post on manty here – I have only tried the Turkish variety), momos and pelmeni are only some variants. Btw, apparently samosas have Central Asian origins as well – I never knew.
A while back while talking to TAP I mentioned the one Central Asian country I really wanted to visit was Uzbekistan. “Really,” he asked, “why?” I said I wanted to visit Samarkand and Bukhara oh so much. “Wow,” he replied, “You just named two of my favourite restaurants!” (Oh dear, even as I type this I crave the kebabs in Delhi. Sigh – I am such a foodie!). It’s interesting how we have taken kebabs and polow and made them something quite our own as well, isn’t it?
This Saturday when I went for Turkish class I took a box of soan papdi with me (I know it might not be traditional Diwali sweets or so, but hey, Haldiram packages it!). My teacher eyed it a bit suspiciously when I offered it but took one bite and declared “Oh! It’s pişmaniye!” I just knew you would say that I told him as he happily helped himself to another serving. He replied smiling, “Gerçekten, Türkiye ve Hindistan çok benziyor!” I do agree.
Friday, October 26, 2007
(Bitter Chill of Winter)
The latest issue of The London Review of Books has a review of Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope. From there I somehow backtracked to this old article by him on Kashmir, which is full of double take inducing anecdotes as the one above. Pure Ali - extremely witty and very good overall. I stumbled upon it half asleep around 1 AM and midway through was giggling, nodding in agreement, definitely not sleepy and wondering "How have I NOT read this before?". By the way, if you haven't read Tariq Ali you really should. He is all kinds of awesome. Also from the article:
When Nehru and Ghaffar Khan revisited Srinigar as Abdullah’s guests in the summer of 1945 it was evident that divisions between the different nationalists were acute. The Lion of Kashmir had laid on a Mughal-style welcome. The guests were taken downriver on lavishly decorated shikaras (gondolas). Barred from gathering on the four bridges along the route, Abdullah’s local Muslim opponents stood on the embankment, dressed in phirens, long tunics which almost touched the ground. In the summer months it was customary not to wear underclothes. As the boats approached, the male protesters, who had not been allowed to carry banners, faced the guests and lifted their phirens; the women turned their backs and bared their buttocks. Muslims had never protested in this way before, and have not done so since. Ghaffar Khan roared with laughter, but Nehru was not amused.
Also, I know that General Yahya is generally greatly disliked in Pakistan but I did not know that Yahya translated as "Fuck - Fuck" in Lahori Punjabi. Heh. Ok, go read in full dammit!
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
A little back ground history. French involvement in Algeria started in the 1830s and France achieved effective control over the area when a French expeditionary force led by General Thomas Robert Bugeaud conquered the native forces of the Arab leader Abd-el-Kader (yes, him of the famous rai song) in 1847. Algeria was declared an integral part of France the very next year and a policy of resettling the Algerian lands with colons (or pieds-noirs) was actively followed. However, nationalist movements and resistance continued and by 1954 the Front de Libération Nationale, the FLN, had emerged as the most organized group with the most popular support.
The war can be divided into two phases: 1954 to 1957/58 and thereafter till independence. The watershed moment was the Battle of Algiers (1956-1958), which took place at a time when the FLN was at its peak. Following the passing of a law in 1956 which suspended most of the guarantees of individual liberties in Algeria the FLN embarked on a path of urban terrorism aiming to attract more attention to the Algerian cause. They averaged close to 800 shootings and bombings per month through the spring of 1957. The job of pacification went to General Jacques Massu and his Tenth Paratroopers' Division, who having served in Indochina understood guerilla warfare and mounted a counter insurgency program. Massu's men made massive arrests, isolated the casbah and practiced torture and eventually succeeded in capturing many FLN leaders, destroying their networks and comprehensively winning the battle.
The movie is excellent in every sense – it famously boasts that there was no documentary footage used, the music is perfect as is the acting, directing and cinematography. I love that Pontecorvo chose local Algerians to play the roles of the FLN members – he spent months scouting for faces that would just fit the role. Brahim Haggiag as Ali La Pointe is so beyond brilliant that his defiant expression is etched in ones memory long after the movie is over. Jean Martin plays Colonel Mathieu (a character based on Massu and other French officers) and is excellent as well. The scene where he makes his appearance, marching his division into the city, ramrod straight, soldier perfect is one of my favourites in the movie. Interestingly Pontecorvo was not happy with the scene while shooting – he felt Martin was not commanding enough. The problem was eventually sorted out by stuffing tissues in the actor’s uniform to broaden up his shoulders and give him an air of authority!
The Battle of Algiers is also an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. One does support the Algerian independence struggle but the methods of the FLN are shocking to say the least and leave one in a sort of moral quandary. On the French side, the torture is abhorrent. And yet one can’t help but be taken in by Mathieu’s charisma. The Battle of Algiers was decisively won by the French – and the penultimate minutes of the movie show this - the bombing of the casbah with a huge number of FLN leaders holed up inside. The last scenes of the movie (if I remember correctly) however show the events of 1961 with Algeria on the cusp on independence, people on the streets cheering. It seems somewhat bizarre in the aftermath of the French victory in the city but it shows how pyrrhic the victory in Algiers was. The French won the battle, as the cliché goes, but lost the war.
After the Battle of Algiers most of the fighting shifted to countryside and the FLN continued to lose power. The French followed a strategy of complete oppression and decimation and that they lost the war despite being militarily much stronger is one of the vagaries of fate but also shows the importance of public opinion and backlash against the policies of torture and the moral dilemma that French citizens eventually found themselves confronted with.
La Trahison (The Betrayal), a movie that I watched recently examines quite excellently the psychological impact of the war on the people involved. The movie is based on a book by Claude Sales recounting his experiences during the war as a lieutenant who has a number of Algerian conscripts under his charge. One of the bizarre aspects of French policy in Algeria was that Algeria was considered an integral part of France (unlike Morocco, Tunisia or Indochine). The large number of pieds-noirs settled in Algeria was one reason the French were so reluctant to leave but the bigger picture was Algeria was simply one part of France just as Provence or Alsace. That it happened to be geographically located in Africa was just an aside. Therefore, a large number of Algerians were conscripted to serve in the French Army to help fight the FLN. This wasn’t a small number by any means; the French managed to recruit many more Muslim Algerians than the FLN. In 1958, around 88,000 Muslims served as French troops. By 1961 this number was 200,000. In contrast the FLN at its peak (1957/58) had 20,000 recruits with another 20,000 – 30,000 auxiliary troops.
La Trahison takes place mostly in the villages with the French trying hard to weed out support for the FLN. It should be noted that the French carried out massive operation in the countryside once the war had shifted there. The population was heavily monitored to watch out for the insurgents. Very detailed and accurate documentations of the population took place. Censuses were conducted and identification cards were issued giving the army the ability to track individuals within the population. Fortified fences were built along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. In addition mass resettlement of inhabitants in these areas took place to isolate the insurgency from aid and manpower.
In the movie, the Algerian soldiers are of the utmost importance given that they can communicate with the villagers and provide vital translating services. Yet these Algerian soldiers are stuck in the middle of nowhere. The have been told they are French and have to serve in the French Army but they aren’t treated as French by the soldiers from mainland France. The local Algerian populace is hostile, of course, and treats them as cowards. How the soldiers react in such a situation is what the movie examines. Will they, can they stay loyal? In an interview of Sales I was reading this line particularly struck out “Dans cette guerre, tout le monde est trahi : les pieds-noirs, la population algérienne, les soldats...” It’s an apt summation of what you feel when watching the movie.
Overall what is interesting is that the war is being discussed openly in the mainstream in France with more movies being made on the subject, more people talking openly and discussing what happened then. It should be noted that Pontecorvo’s movie was Italian made and banned in France for many years.
Interestingly, earlier today while I was thinking of writing this post this entry on Laila Lalami’s blog directed me to a NYT article on the new National Centre of the History of Immigration in Paris.
“But being a French citizen means you’re not categorized as African French or Southeast Asian French or West Indian French; you’re just plain French. That’s the republican ideal, citizenship bestowing theoretical equality, belying the reality of racism.”
Ironically the French Algerians were in theory as French as anyone else, only in practice it was a different story. It’s same for the immigrants who live in the banlieues. They are supposed to be as French as anyone else but if you know their address, you know they are immigrants. They are still the easiest prey for the right wing jack asses like Jean-Marie Le Pen -I will never forget his comment on Zidane being acceptable because he was the son of a hakri – or idiots who tried to pass a bill praising the ‘benefits’ of colonialism last year.
““The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things,” Jacques Toubon, the museum’s president, told me, somewhat defensively I thought. France “is very late in confronting the truth about its colonial history,” he said, but the purpose of his museum “is to tell the story of immigration.” That sounded to an American like devising a museum for African-American or American Indian cultures but skipping gingerly over slavery, segregation and Manifest Destiny.”
The French need to come to terms with their own colonial past (not to mention rethink their disastrous integration policies). That people are willing to talk about the past and discuss it critically is a huge positive, but it's also just a start.
*I had also wanted to write about Atom Eyogan’s movie Ararat and Turkey but seeing how ridiculously long this post is I shall perhaps post about that later.
** Most of the background information on Algeria is paraphrased from the introduction of a paper on the Algerian War of Independence I wrote for one of my history courses.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
This weekend blogging shall be about some of the movies I have seen recently. La Trahison (The Betrayal), set during the Algerian War of Independence. The Battle of Algiers, which I have not seen in a while but is one of my all time favourite movies. If you haven’t seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant film please go and rent a copy now. And Atom Eyogan’s Ararat – strangely topical given the recent Genocide bill that is making the rounds in the US Congress. I have also wanted to post excerpts from the wonderful and hunger inducing Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East on, amongst other things, why the Turkey is called so and the origins of baklava. All of this if I ever mange to get down to it, of course!
Current read is Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History. Only half way through but it’s been a good quick read and quite excellent for what is basically a short summary of the history an immensely complicated region. Here an excerpt that helps explain why the area remained hugely heterogeneous:
If the Balkans did not become another Islamic land, one reason was that the sultans had no interest in making this happen. Christians paid higher taxes, and mass conversion would have impoverished the empire…Less material factors also played a part. On the two occasions (in 1517 and again in 1647) when the Porte seriously considered the forces Islamistion of Balkan Christians, there was religious opposition to the idea on Koranic ground. In general there was no Muslim analogue to the widespread Christian impulse to drive out the infidel and heretic. On the contrary Islamic law prescribed the toleration of Christian and Jewish communities of believers. It prohibited Muslims from converting to other religions but did not insist upon conversions in the other direction. Indeed many a convert was obliged to demonstrate the desire to embrace the true faith was not prompted by materialistic or ignoble motives.
To end this largely random post via 3quarksdaily this link to an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Reason magazine. As they point out van Bakel seems to be one of the few people not letting her off the hook all that easily. I find her extremely irritating and offensive and her arguments simplistic, generic and ignorant. (Interestingly, before the Turkish election earlier this year she wrote an article arguing that the US should support a military coup in Turkey to prevent the AKP from coming to power. The mind boggles.) I have to admit I haven’t read her books. Though I think her opinions come across strongly enough in her interviews anyway, I would gather they are more of the same. From the interview:
Reason: Explain to me what you mean when you say we have to stop the burning of our flags and effigies in Muslim countries. Why should we care?
Hirsi Ali: We can make fun of George Bush. He’s our president. We elected him. And the queen of England, they can make fun of her within Britain and so on. But on an international level, this has gone too far. You know, the Russians, they don’t burn American flags. The Chinese don’t burn American flags. Have you noticed that? They don’t defile the symbols of other civilizations. The Japanese don’t do it. That never happens.
Reason: Isn’t that a double standard? You want us to be able to say about Islam whatever we want—and I certainly agree with that. But then you add that people in Muslim countries should under all circumstances respect our symbols, or else.
Hirsi Ali: No, no, no.
Reason: We should be able to piss on a copy of the Koran or lampoon Muhammad, but they shouldn’t be able to burn the queen in effigy. That’s not a double standard?
Hirsi Ali: No, that’s not what I’m saying. In Iran a nongovernmental organization has collected money, up to 150,000 British pounds, to kill Salman Rushdie. That’s a criminal act, but we are silent about that.
Reason: We are?
Hirsi Ali: Yes. What happened? Have you seen any political response to it?
Reason: The fatwa against Rushdie has been the subject of repeated official anger and protests since 1989.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
The studio distributing “The Kite Runner” a tale of childhood betrayal, sexual predation and ethnic tension in Afghanistan, is delaying the film’s release to get its three schoolboy stars out of Kabul — perhaps permanently — in response to fears that they could be attacked for their enactment of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.
This is so strange…I really don’t know what to make of it. (Is there anything to make of it?) I read about this a few days back but it really seems to have blown up since. I think more than anything it just offers more proof of how unstable Afghanistan has become.
What struck me most reading the article was this:
Mr. Forster emphasized that casting Afghan boys did not seem risky at the time; local filmmakers even encouraged him, he said: “You really felt it was safe there, a democratic process was happening, and stability, and a new beginning.”
A couple of years back my father had visited Kabul. I still have (for some reason) the pictures from his trip I had downloaded onto my computer. I remember him saying something about the bootlegged Bollywood movies that were available everywhere, about how they wanted to rebuild the country, to start promoting tourism…
This last trip to Delhi, while browsing the bookshelves I came across a book he had gotten back from Kabul. A travel guide to Afghanistan, circa 1971. It almost broke my heart just going through the faded pages of that book. No country deserves this.
In other news, the Nobel prizes will start being announced next week. As usual, confusion reigns over the question of who might win for literature. Odds are here. I will be terribly happy if Adonis wins, but I would think the odds might be slightly slim… (perhaps the fact that Pamuk won last year, makes them worse?). Not surprisingly, however, he is one of the strong contenders amongst those in some know. I’ve wanted to read Amos Oz for a while now - actually, I haven’t read many Israeli authors and Oz, Grossman (who, by the way, delivered this years PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture) and Yehoshua are all on the immediate reading list.
Oh, and I am reading Llosa right now and dear lord, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of the funniest books I have read in just the longest, longest while. Truly excellent.
Friday, September 28, 2007
It was slightly bizarre in the midst of all of this to read the final paragraph of Sunil Khilnani’s excellently argued "The Idea of India":
India’s experience reveals the ordinariness of democracy – untidy, massively complex, unsatisfying but vital to a sense of human life today. It establishes that historical and cultural innocence do not exclude Asian cultures from the idea of democracy. But it does not mean that these cultures – or any other, for that matter – are tailor made for democracy. It will always be a vary struggle. For opponents of democracy in Asia, the history of this experience is a warning of what can be done. For its advocates it a basis of hope. The uproarious laughter that suffused the afternoon meetings held in Rangoon after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 1995 expressed something of that hope. It was a laugh of freedom – that dissolves fear and says, however quietly, there is no divine right to rule.
It just makes it even more disappointing to see India dilly dally on the issue and not condemning outright the junta in Myanmar. The cozying up to the military regime since 2000 speaks volumes of our increasing hypocrisy and lack of moral standing.
You can sign Avaaz’s Myanmar action petition here. In addition, more information from Irrawaddy here. The BBC’s coverage here. openDemocracy’s article on the happenings here.
* Post title from Camus' s The Myth of Sisyphus. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Total number of books owned: No idea. Have a whole roomful in Delhi not all of which are mine of course. Many of them belong to my parents…some have been handed down. Plus there are quite a few of the earliest books I ever owned still around, including Red Riding Hood and Snow White (which my mom used to read out to me!), collections of Amar Chitra Katha, Hans Christian Anderson, the abridged version of classics like Count of Monte Cristo, Oliver Twist etc. (The unabridged versions are there too). And there are also books bought during the teenage years that I am quite ashamed about now – Jeffrey Archer, Michael Chrichton, even a couple by Sidney Sheldon and the like. No Mills & Boon or the sort – never read those. Don’t have many in my room now, only a couple of shelves, mostly because I use the library rather than buy books these days.
Last book bought: Heh. Orhan Pamuk. Other Colours.
Last book read: Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is simply one of those books that everyone should read. Please do. It is a slender volume – only about 100 pages – and would probably take only a couple of hours to read. The short story, The Land of Sad Oranges is one of the most poignant, moving (these words seem so hollow but what else can I use to get my point across?) I have read in a very long time, leaving me feeling as if I was stuck in a vacuous, pointless, senseless space with just no way out.
More on Kanafani here.
Currently reading: Other Colours, of course. Apart from that Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. I lugged it (literally – it’s a ridiculously unwieldy book) back from Delhi because it was just lying at home and I was contemplating buying it anyway. Because of its size, reading it on the train is not feasible so I have been reading it at night before going to bed and it’s been slower progress than I would have liked. (I usually fall asleep while reading table lamp on et al and wake up with a start only when my alarm goes off the next morning…sigh. This work thing is not fun; I have eye bags that could rival a raccoon.) Anyway, have been reading Guha for the last two weeks (discount weekends) and am about 60% through, and so far it has been quite good, detailed and engrossing. That is saying quite a bit given the scope and scale of the book in which it definitely transcends usual one volume introductory texts on India.
Books plan on reading next: On my bookshelf Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun; Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (which I have heard only good things about); Maria Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Script writer (I still haven’t read Llosa – utterly shameful, I know, but this shall be rectified soon). Suggestions on which to read first?
Five books that mean a lot to me: Jeez…I really had to think hard about this.
The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk
I struggled between My Name is Red and The Black Book…and really I should have copped out and chosen both. Perhaps Kara Kitap is still fresh in my mind because I read it recently and because when I think of the stories that populate its pages – of the Istanbul mannequin maker who had no buyers when mannequins became all the fashion because his were too “Turkish”, of the back streets of Cihangir, the dark kahve shops, of dear Aladin’s shop where you could find anything under the sun – they all remind me of the city where I spent probably the happiest two weeks I can remember.
But this also made me feel that perhaps a reread of Benim Adim Kirmizi is in order. For I truly fell in love with Pamuk (I always liked him a lot but My Name is Red blew like out of proportion) while reading that book. And because it contains probably my two favourite lines in a Pamuk book:
“To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.”
L’Étranger – Albert Camus
While I love Camus’ essays – The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel in particular - L’Étranger is probably my favourite book by him. Cold, indifferent Meursault who cannot even cry at his mother’s funeral…who in the end seems to us to be the internally rational and logical person. For the world, in the end, is only as sensible as we make it.
Side note: Camus over Sartre – Yes?
Discovery of India – Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru is so often portrayed as a romantic… a dream in his eyes, rose in his button hole and the sort. (It is an apt description I guess - when he made his “Tryst with Destiny” speech he was wearing a rose the button hole of his silk kurta, and no doubt he had a dream). Some of this comes across in his writings as well. He could ramble on with metaphor after metaphor but more often than not his prose was elegant and his writings hugely expansive ion scope. This is most obvious in Discovery of India, where he seems to be almost narrating a common national heritage into being.
Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects – Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell is one of the most egotistical people I have ever read. And also the most brilliant. He had an opinion on everything and he usually put down his point for view, which is why he must be one of the most prolific writers ever. In all his books his prose is simple, logical, to the point and extremely witty. And it’s probably at its best in Why I Am Not a Christian. I also love his Marriage and Morals and History of Western Philosophy (which while biased, is still a really good read) among others.
Ramayana – Valmiki
The version I read was a ridiculously fat tome with the original Sanskrit, supplemented by Hindi, supplemented by English. It’s a great story, beautifully written and I think it’s important to read a lot of texts in their original form just to realize the grotesque misrepresentation of them by the religious fundamental asshats. Plus reading the Valmiki Ramayana is a good base to read the other versions as well – the Ramacharitamanasa (just so beautifully lyrical), the Kamban Ramayana, C.Rajagopalachari’s English version (which is probably still the best English version of the epic, and miles ahead of his English version of the Mahabharata) or even watching the TV serial (I still do when I’m in India!).
I usually avoid the Uttara Kanda because it seems like nothing more than a tacked on epilogue. It is offensive of course, but so are other parts of the Ramayana… and Rama is different from the idealized version of him we are usually fed. But he is still a most fascinating character, hugely human and very charismatic. And simple. In this he is miles apart from Krishna, who in all honesty is way beyond my comprehension. I wonder if I would ever be able to read the entire Mahabharata in a remotely original form, that text is so long, meandering and plain confusing, just the thought of it overwhelms.
Ok…this took me longer to finish than I would’ve thought possible. Needless to say I have rambled on aimlessly. I tag Falstaff, Veena, TR and Elizabeth. (It’s a nice tag – so please do do it!)
Thursday, September 20, 2007
On a side note, when I was buying the book I couldn’t decide which version to pick up. The print by Faber and Faber (paperback) or the Alfred A. Knopf (a hardcover) version. Both were for the exact same price and I walked from Borders to Kinokuniya twice because I couldn’t decide which one to pick up. I eventually picked up the hardcover because it somehow seemed more apt for a collection of essays and because the pages were so wonderful – thick rich paper, slightly jagged at the side. This despite the fact that I love the cover of the Faber version (it’s a picture that first appeared in Istanbul. The young Orhan Pamuk still dreaming of being a painter). And also despite the fact that Knopf spells colour as “color” and I do actually prefer the British spelling. In any case, once I had bought the book there wasn’t much I could do but I did agonise over my decision.
This sort of anal pickiness over which book to buy is so typical of me. I have hardly been buying books for the last few years because they are just so expensive and also because the library is so good that my library card is my single most valuable possession. So when I do buy a book it is a sort of emotional investment. I chose the copy with the better cover, sometimes smell the pages, always try to get a hold of how it feels in my hand. Other Colours has been my first purchase since I started work and now that I am earning I keep eyeing books that I really want to own (top of the list is this version of the Shahnameh). Clearly this is where all my money will go.
But here is the thing. After all the fretting about which copy of Other Colours I should buy because of the cover I felt a bit validated when I read this essay in the book:
Nine Notes on Book Covers
- If a novelist can finish a book without dreaming of its cover, he is wise, well-rounded, and a fully formed adult, but he’s also lost the innocence that made him a novelist in the first place.
- We cannot recall the books we love most without recalling their covers.
- We would all like to see more readers buying books for their covers and more critics despising books written with those readers in mind.
- Detailed depictions of heroes on book covers insult not just the author’s imagination but also his readers’.
- When designers decide that The Red and the Black deserves a red and black jacket, or when they decorate books entitled Blue House or Château with illustrations of blue houses or châteaux, they do not leave us thinking if they’ve been faithful to the text but wondering if they’ve even read it.
- If, years after reading a book, we catch a glimpse of its cover, we are returned at once to that long-ago day when we curled up in a corner with that book to enter the world hidden inside.
- Successful book covers serve as conduits, spiriting us away from the ordinary world in which we live, ushering us into the world of books.
- A bookshop owes its allure not to books but to the variety of their covers.
- Book titles are like people’s names: They help us distinguish a book from the million others it resembles. But the book covers are like peoples faces: Either they remind us of a happiness we once knew or they promise a blissful world we have yet to explore. That is why we gaze at book covers as passionately as we do at faces.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Friday, September 14, 2007
Of Pamuk’s new book – not much to write here actually except that in short the wait is killing me! But till then, links on him declaring himself “…a democrat, a secularist, a liberal and a westernization supporter”, talking about politics in general and a lovely excerpt from the book on barber shops in Istanbul.
(All the reviews of Other Colors I have read have been, not surprisingly, extremely positive).
Of Majid Majidi’s Beed- e- Majnoon (The Willow Tree), which I saw recently, weeping silently throughout. Also about Majidi’s other heartwarmingly adorable Bacheha- ye- Aseman (The Children of Heaven) which I saw quite a few years back.
Of Abraham Eraly’s Mughal Throne which I finished a while back all the while thinking of putting up excerpts here (perhaps as a photo commentary sort of post?). It was a great read.
But till I get time to write about these wanted to post wishing everyone on Ramazan which started yesterday. Ramazan bayramınızı kutlar! Most wonderful meal of baba ghanoush, hummus and harissa was had last night. All washed down with generous doses of mint tea. I reached home stuffed, happy and dead tired. Anyway, hope the coming month brings good tidings…..
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Calm voyage. Resting for hours under the awning on deck. Never seen water as blue. Truly ultramarine… In the early afternoon, far ahead the capital of the Orient appeared, like a mirage at first, then the green of trees and the colourful jostling of houses gradually becoming more distinct.
It is said that ideally one should approach the city by sea to truly appreciate it. Nowadays I think you have to be rich enough to afford a cruise for that, I am not. I took a fifteen hour train from Greece and that in itself was pretty special. An hour after I had been told that we were officially in Istanbul we still hadn't reached. I knew the landmarks to look out for though and as the train crossed the city walls at Yedikule, I knew we were truly in Istanbul. As the train pulled into Sirkeci and I caught my first glimpse of the haliç, the Galata Kulesi on one side and the minarets of the Süleymaniye Camii on the other, I couldn’t help but scream out in delight. Istanbul!
Evening falls. We watch the dark descending from the outlying hills upon the low roofs, rising from the depths of the city atop the lead-grey cupolas of the mosques till at length it reaches to the tips of the minarets which gleam especially brightly one last time before the light goes.
No one could conceive of such a city. So many different types of buildings, so many different greens… Every walk full of surprises, and indeed of alarm. The prospects change like scenes in a play. One street lined with palatial buildings ends at a ravine. You go to a theatre and a door in the foyer opens into a copse; another time you turn down a gloomy back street that narrows and narrows till you think you are trapped whereupon you take one last desperate turn round a corner and find yourself suddenly gazing from a vantage point across the vastest of panoramas.
There is no skyline that is more beautiful than Istanbul. None. I love the minarets. Not just those that dominate the skyline but even the more obscure ones. I love how the poke out of the jungle of newly built structures, just beating the modern buildings in height. I love how when you reach a clearing after having climbed up one of the narrow, steep lanes that so characterize the city and spot the six minarets of the Sultanahmet Camii or those of the Süleymaniye Camii, you suddenly know exactly where you are. I never felt lost in Istanbul. Those minarets gave me a sense of direction.
In the middle of the hall a husbandman was saying his afternoon prayers. Again and again he touched his forehead to the floor and remained bowed down for what seemed to me an eternity. The soles of his feet gleamed in the straggling light that entered through the doorway. At length he stood up, first casting a deferential glance to right and left, over his shoulders – to greet his guardian angels, who stand behind him…
There are some seven thousand plus mosques in Istanbul. They are everywhere. And each of them has a distinct call to prayer. I am convinced if I stayed in Istanbul long enough I would be able to pinpoint each muezzin's call. My favorite was at the Sultanahmet Camii. It was simply one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard – I had goose bumps all over. There was also a mosque somewhere near where I was staying as was a night club. I couldn’t see either but it was the muezzin’s call that would wake me up in the morning and when the call to prayer would ring out at night it would be in accompaniment to the latest Turkish pop number that was blaring out. I would invariably smile.
Text in Italics from W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Friday, August 31, 2007
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Ya Allah.....homesickness is going to be the death of me. In Nadeem Aslam’s wonderful Maps for Lost Lovers the immigrants rename the British city they live in Dasht-e-Tanhaii. The desert of loneliness. I could relate.
Last week I even happily went and saw Chak De! India. I liked it, messaging my parents to take my sister to watch it because she is the SRK fan and would no doubt enjoy it more than I did. (I am an Aamir loyalist. Have been since age five.)
It’s been a good Independence Day personally. Lots of loose threads and outstanding matters tied up. And I received undeniable proof of the fact that the only thing you need to get a job is another job. Still I kind of wish I could go home for a bit... don’t know when that will be.
Also before I end this song (one of my all time favourites) by the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has been playing on a never ending loop lately. Enjoy.