Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book 91, Afghanistan: "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

Wheeee!!! I'm finally back in the 21st century!!!

And in good old book club territory, too. Not kidding, despite my boyfriend's protestations that its commercialisation means this book isn't authentically Afghan. Stuff gets popular for a reason: I actually finished half of this 371-page baby just sitting at a mama shop just now.

This one's an emigrant's story of his lost country, not Julia Alvarez's story of the Dominican Republic and Carlos Eire's story of Cuba - there's even a similar focus on the gilded lifestyles of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy and their humiliation on becoming lower-caste American immigrants. Lovely immersive descriptions; the kind of stuff I wish us folks in Singapore were turning out.

The key dynamic is between our rich man's son protagonist Amir and his best friend/servant boy Hasan. And I'm not sure if I've ever read a story in which the main character acts so unforgivably cruelly towards another human being. This ends up being a novel about guilt, and ultimately redemption, as Amir returns to Kabul under the Taliban, witnessing its full horrors (and I was signing petitions against those guys BEFORE 9/11, thank you very much), and pulling off a climax that, while barely believable, is just intense enough to redeem everyone involved.

Weirdly enough, in the closing portions (I'm not going to reveal too much), one character becomes an allegory for Afghanistan's suffering and neglect: we all bear responsibility for not interfering more during the Soviet and Taliban occupations, and the crazily long dénouement is testament to the fact that way too much scarring has occurred; healing will take a hell of a long time and a hell of a lot of hope.

Yeah, that's all I have to say about this book, really. Except that it also made me think about Singapore's inhumanity to our own servant classes: foreign workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh and Indonesia who clean up our shit and build our houses.

(Also learned that Hindi music has always been popular in this country - we're definitely in South Asia now, kid.)

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years."

Next book: Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, from Pakistan

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book 90, Iran: "Deliverance from Error" and "The Beginning of Guidance" by al-Ghazali

This slim little volume took longer than I thought. But that's okay; I think I actually like Al-Ghazali. He's an oddly modern thinker, rationalist even in his irrationalities.

While the divine/human mind that wrote the Quran is obsessed with hellfire, Al-Ghazali's more interested in the very idea of the Truth. In Deliverance from Error, he explains that he's unwilling to accept proof via miracles: no point is proven through magic tricks of turning stones into gold or rods into serpents. He's smart enough to point out that the Faithful must not dismiss their ideas of infidel philosophers in the realms of natural science, logic, even ethics.

Of course he's silly sometimes: he claims the Greek thinkers are fundamentally flawed because they weren't Muslim; he warns that only the elites should be allowed to access their ideas. I fucking love his imagery here, though:

"It is only the simple villager, not the experienced money-changer, who is made to abstain from dealings with the counterfeiter. It is not the strong swimmer who is kept back from the shore, but the clumsy amateur; not the accomplished snake-charmer who is barred from touching the snake, but the ignorant boy."

Oh, and one of his counter-arguments for complete dependence on natural philosophy is the inductively proven usefulness of magic squares in aiding childbirth.

Yet it's these very imperfections which draw me in as a reader: the knowledge that this religious writer is fallible, is fundamentally human. He charts his own philosophical and spiritual development in this text, acknowledging that rationality can only take one so far and thus the necessity for mysticism - a paradoxical situation he has to live with.

And that fallibility, that very idiosyncrasy, is what makes his commandments in The Beginning of Guidance more charming than ridiculous. It's here that he lays out strict rules for ablutions before prayer, for going to the toilet (never in front of others, step into the room left foot first and exit right foot first, and wipe your cock an odd number of times on a stone).

It's here that he warns against lying, backbiting, cursing, and most important of all, hypocrisy. If every Muslim followed what he prescribed, they'd be saints even to our secular eyes - always turning the other cheek, never judging lest they themselves be judged. It's also here that he advocates moderation in all things, propriety at prayers and in conversation, and naturally respect for elders. It's like he's the reincarnation of Confucius or something.

So I've read two religious texts in a row! Never let it be said that I'm anti-faith, my dears.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map
Representative quote: Beware of association with the learned men of this time, especially those occupied with controversial topics and intellectual disputes. Beware of them; because of their jealousy they wait for you to fall into ill-fortune, imagine various things concerning you, and behind your back make signs with their eyes among themselves while enumerating your faults when they meet together so that sometimes in their anger they confront you with these faults during their rivalries. They do not forgive your faults or slips; nor do they hide your private matters which should be kept hidden. They make an account with you even in the most negligible matter, and they envy you inn everything, small or great. They instigate your friends against you by slandering, spreading false information, and lies. If they are pleased with you they show it through servile flattery; if they are angry with you they are quietly stupid. On their bodies they wear beautiful clothes, but their minds are wolves. This is a judgement based on clear observation of most of them except those whom God (exalted is He!) has protected. Companionship with them is a loss, and association with them is to be forsaken.

Next book: Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, from Afghanistan.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whatever happened to Rumi?

My excuse for not having finished Al-Ghazali yet is that I freaking lost the library book for nearly a week; only recovered it after having bought a replacement from Wardah Books.

But I owe you guys an explanation for why I'm not doing Rumi Jalaluddin's Masnavi, as I originally announced. After all, he's the national poet of (currently much-beleaguered) Iran, isn't he?

Said explanation is complicated. Y'see, upon doing a bit of research, I discovered that Rumi lived in a time when the Persian Empire was pretty damn big: the town where he was born lies in either present-day Afghanistan or Tajikistan. Later, he fled his town when he was seven to settle in Konya, Turkey.

Somehow, I got it into my head that Rumi never once set in what's currently Iran. However, a glance at Wikipedia that he did indeed encounter the poet Attar in Nishapur.

So I'm in a bit of a dilemma. Do I return to my original plan of reading the really long Masnawi? Or shall I read it for Afghanistan, thus displacing Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner? Or shall I keep it for my next circuit, when I'm reading Tajikistan? After all, there are really few famous literary works about Tajikistan...

In other news, the replacement Kindle is here!


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book 89, Iraq: "Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna"

This is the most ancient text I’ve covered so far, and unless groundbreaking archaeological discoveries are made, it’s the most ancient text I’m going to cover in this project, period. It dates from 2300 BCE: the first known text to be accompanied by an author’s name, hailing from Sumer, a civilization was already two millennia old at the time of composition; arguably the very civilization that invented writing, in fact. Fascinatingly, it’s written by a woman: the daughter of Sargon, builder of the world’s first empire, High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna at Ur.

But oh lordy. It’s the wrong book. I made the National Library order this because it looked like the most up to date, complete version of Enheduanna’s corpus, and what do I discover halfway through? That the princess’s most famous works which I’ve heard quoted here and there as evidence for her genius and even her lesbianism, her hymns to the goddess Inanna – they’re her devotional hymns, compiled in an earlier book.

The Temple Hymns are quite a different matter. They’re a political work: one hymn written for every temple in Sargon’s new patchwork of conquered empires. What Enheduanna did to forge their unity was to sing praises to each of their local gods and goddesses, denying none of them, crafting a holy text that would endure as canonical scripture, copied and recopied on cuneiform blocks through the centuries. Note also that the different regions didn’t even speak the same language, but this was ok: she spoke both Akkadian from her dad’s side and Sumerian from her mum.

Mind you, the sum and significance of these works is terribly interesting, but ploughing through Betty de Shong Meador’s work tests one’s patience a little – she’s an academic as well as a literary translator, and there’s pages of annotations and explications after each hymn; no way you can read this casually. Even if you skim the hymns themselves, they get a bit repetitive after a while: they’re not narrative, like the anonymously authored Epic of Gilgamesh; they’re fragmentary gasps of glory. Yeah, sometimes they’re studded with dazzling imagery, but even brilliant oohs and aahs can provoke zzzs after a while.

Of course, the annotations do pay off sometimes: without them, I’d never have known that Sumerian religious culture was so, shall we say, womanist; there are notes about female warriors, female religious scribes, female kings, female viziers; gipars (convents for priestesses; monasteries did not exist) and goddesses with tremendous sexual agency: how Ereshkigal of the Underworld sentences the warrior god Nergal to the worlds below to be executed for his intransigence but seduces him instead; bridal songs about erect nipples and throbbing vulvas. And of course, Inanna herself, “the lady of largest heart”, a savage lion battering a wild bull, bearing seven maces, washing her weapons in the blood of battle. Makes the bacchanalian Greeks look positively Puritan.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

I was going to reproduce a hymn to Inanna for you guys, but on second thoughts, there’s another more intriguing piece dedicated to Nisaba, the goddess of writing, she of the gold or silver stylus. Hers is the temple that ends the sequence, allowing Enheduanna to punctuate the entire corpus with her own name.

Representative text:

Temple Hymn 42
The Erest Temple of Nisaba

this shining house of stars bright with lapis stones
has opened itself to all lands
a whole mix of people in the shrine every month
lift heads for you Eresh
all the primeval lords

soapwort the very young saba on your platform
great Nanibgal Nisaba Lady of Saba

brought powers down from heaven
added her measure to your powers
enlarged the shrine set it up for praising

faithful woman exceeding in wisdom
opens [her] mouth [to recite] over lined tablets
always consults lapis tablets
[and] gives strong council to all lands

true woman of the pure soapwort
born of the sharpened reed
who measures the heavens by cubits
strikes the coiled measuring rod on the earth

praise be to Nisaba

13 lines for the house of Nisaba in Eresh

the person who bound this tablet together
is Enheduanna
my kind something never before created
did not this one give birth to it

the incipit: é-u-nir
the count of its lines is altogether 548

Next book: Al-Ghazzali’s Deliverance from Error and The Beginning of Guidance, from Iran.

Friday, February 3, 2012

RIP Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)

I just heard about this via Facebook. Lung cancer. She was 88, so she'd had good innings. Still, it makes me want to yell out cuss words. Here's the New York Times obituary.

She was the first poet whose work really amazed me, I think. I first encountered her in an e-mail of poems sent by Alfian Sa'at, I think, with the subject-line "Wislawa Red-Hot Lava". Ever since then, I've tried to imitate that sense of everythingness, that sense of speaking of the whole world, to the whole world, in my poems. Haven't succeeded much.