Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Guest blogger: The power of imagination can redeem the Middle East 

Our occasional guest-blogger Sophie Masson is back, arguing for imaginative literature as a catalyst for change:

The heartening ripples of change and awakening democracy in the Middle East, following on from the phenomenally successful Iraq election, are hopefully a sign that things in the region aren't always necessarily going to be tuned to the depressing modern triad of terrorism, tyranny and tribalism. It's going to be a long hard road and no-one should be too unrealistic about it, but there's no doubt the possibilities for real democratic and social progress are there, now. Cautious optimism reigns; of course anything could happen, and the region's authoritarians aren't going to give up easily. But today I'd like to talk not about political developments in the changing of the Middle East, and more about another agent of change. It's a less tangible thing than politics but it is nevertheless very, very important, if the process of change is really to gather momentum and transform the region. And that's a cultural opening-up, a recovery of imaginative powers in literature, a need for Middle Easterners--and Arabs in particular--to both explore and enjoy their own classic literature and to create new writing, free not only of the fear of the secret police knock on the door, but also of the 'need' to always go in for social realism. And also for writers to take their place not only in their own culture, but also in the wider world; and not only in 'high' culture, but pop culture as well. That hopefully will be part of the process of normalisation of these tormented and ossified societies.

This post was prompted by the rather heartening, to me, news (which Arthur
blogged about), that there is now a series of Arab superhero comic-book adventures. It may seem like a small thing, but as Arthur pointed out, if more kids in the Arab world dreamed of being a comic-book superhero rather than an OBL, the world would be a better place. And so I'd like to offer these few observations, based on my own contact with Arab literary culture, especially through the Arab-Australian literary journal Kalimat, for which I am an editorial adviser. Long conversations with its most impressive editor, Syrian/Lebanese Dr Raghid Nahhas (who is both a scientist and a fine writer and translator), as well as observations of the publishing culture, and books available, in such relatively free if still authoritarian places as the United Arab Emirates, where my brother lives and which we have visited a couple of times, have convinced me of something I've felt instinctively for a while: when a society's imaginative faculty is are impoverished and repressed and disallowed, by tyrannical regimes and the politicisation of everything, it will either cause people to become fearful, passive drones or else make them dangerous. And because a tyrannical regime is adept at protecting itself, and seems invincible to its terrorised populace, that imaginative faculty may well project itself onto perceived external enemies, so that what could have been the plot for a thriller of international conspiracy, in the West, becomes an actual murderous plot, in the Arab world.

It's not as if Arabs lack literary imagination. Their classic imaginative literature, such as that magnificent necklace of jewelled tales, the Thousand and One Nights, are amongst the world's greatest treasures, and have inspired countless Western writers as well as Arab writers. There are wonderful folktales as well, and lots of beautiful poetry. Yet in modern times, the Arab world is bereft of literature of all kinds. There was a brief flowering in the fifties, after the end of colonialism and before the modern tyrants took over. Then, there was a flurry of poetry, novels, writings of all sorts, and a flourishing film industry, especially in Egypt which has been one of the cultural 'drivers' of the modern Arab world. That soon ended, and today, you can count on the fingers of one hand the really major Arab creative writers (I'm not talking of intellectuals here, but novelists, poets, etc)--people like Naghuib Mahfouz and Amin Maalouf--and most of those have made their reputation especially in the West, and are not highly regarded in their country of origin. Mahfouz, who still lives in his native Egypt and has received the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been harassed and intimidated constantly by Islamists and others, and it's only his worldwide fame which has prevented worse from happening to him; the Lebanese Maalouf lives in France, where he has total freedom to work, and where he has acquired a large following, as well as in Britain, for his lyrical, witty and luxurious novels, full of the colour, history and legends of his native country. There are also of course several Arab writers who are not translated into Western languages, but Dr Nahhas told me that though they are good, there is just not the range there used to be in that brief 'Prague spring', to appropriate a term. His own fierce determination to showcase as many of those good writers as possible, to give them a voice, and to bring their work to the West, has meant that he has laboured hard and mightily under very difficult circumstances indeed. (There's a real samidzat feel to some of this). Even going back to Syria or to Lebanon to interview writers, for instance, is an act fraught with all kinds of delicate problems, shuffling around obstacles, and plain fudging. That is THE biggest problem for Arab writers: the ghastly atmosphere in which they, along with all other members of their societies, have been forced to live under means that no-one except the crazy-brave exceptions can actually ever say what they think--on any subject whatsoever. Arab writing--particularly poetry--is of course very fond of metaphor, symbol and often will have not only a double but triple or more meaning, but this natural cultural leaning has become exacerbated by political conditions and become abstruse, elusive, hard to pin down, with onion layers of evasion and fudging. That's if it hasn't been brutalised into propaganda and hysterical tirades against Jews, Crusaders, Persians and etc. Many good writers who are neither prepared to do the dance of the seven veils with their writing, or engage in the usual pointless political hysteria, have either gone to the West, or are simply silent, never able to show anything beyond their own family circles, their voices absent in what passes for Arab cultural discourse.

And all too often, even when writing does get past the censors, both external and internal (self-censorship being one of the most pervasive and insidious results of a tyrannical regime) Arab writers seem to focus on two things: the very personal, family stuff; and social realism. For children, the situation is even more dire--you get potted historical stuff, retold stories from the Koran, and a host of dull and tedious moralising tracts. No Arab version of Harry Potter (despite the fact pirated translated copies of Rowling's books do a very brisk trade indeed, and the boy wizard is very popular)! Not even--and this astounded me, in my trawlings through the bookshops in the UAE, and discussions with Raghid and other contacts--any retold stories from the Thousand and One Nights! There is just no space, it seems, in the Arab publishing world, for fantasy, adventure, entertainment, sheer fun. That's why I was so interested in these new Arab superhero comics, hoping they'd be the brave advance guard in a whole new genre. Let's hope so! Pop culture can often be a harbinger of wider things; the antennae of popular fiction writers, such as comic-book creators, thriller writers, fantasy authors, children's authors, and so on, can be more finely tuned to the zeitgeist and popular mood than the more 'ivory-tower', more intellectual writers. We are so used here in the West to the enormous range of both 'pop' and high culture (good, bad and indifferent), and to the marvelously rich and fertile imaginative soil our minds are nurtured in, that many of us take it completely for granted. But that atmosphere just isn't there for the readers of the Arab world, be they adults or children. And if it starts to be created, be it with such humble beginnings as a series of comic-book adventures, then we will begin to see the full potential of the Arab world, both for itself, and in relation to the rest of the world. Bring on the Arab J. K. Rowling, or Stephen King, or Tom Clancy!


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?