Commentary Magazine


Let's Get Westoxicated!

My middle-school archnemesis in Tehran was Mr. Pourmand, a Koran teacher and fanatical devotee of Iran’s clerical regime. We often clashed over my preference for Jules Verne and Metallica over labyrinthine Koranic passages. When, near the end of eighth grade—the year was 1998—I told him about my family’s impending emigration to the United States, the young teacher could not hide his bitter contempt. “Good,” he said. “That’s where Westoxicated fools like you belong!” Months later, I learned that Mr. Pourmand had sought out my mother’s advice about the green card application process—so that he too could one day take flight to the treacherous heart of Global Arrogance.

The contradictions embodied by my Koran teacher’s hypocrisy also shape the editorial framing of Tablet and Pen, Reza Aslan’s new anthology of 20th-century Middle Eastern literature. Aslan, an Iranian-American intellectual, is a rising pundit and the author of popular books on contemporary Islam and foreign policy. This anthology marks a new foray for Aslan as an academic thought leader, as its tone and selections are clearly targeted at introductory university courses.

The hefty volume collects essays, short stories, poems, and excerpts of novels by some of the leading lights of modern Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Urdu literature. What ties these diverse contributors together, according to Aslan, is “a common experience of Western imperialism and colonial domination,” giving birth to a “single sustained narrative.” Yet a majority of contributors eschew postcolonial themes altogether. Ironically, even many of those who most vociferously indict Western influence in the region self-consciously appropriate Western literary forms.

Tablet and Pen, according to its marketers, seeks to shift “America’s perception of the Middle East away from religion and politics.” But—as with all things Middle Eastern—religion and politics pervade the anthology, beginning with Aslan’s literary cartography. While more than a fifth of the massive collection is devoted to works from Urdu-speaking South Asia, a region generally considered outside the core Mideast, entire cultures at the heart of the region are abandoned, including Kurdish, Assyrian, and Amazigh literature.

Not to mention the complete and conspicuous omission of Hebrew literature and Jewish authors.

Aslan claims that Hebrew does not merit representation in an anthology of modern Middle Eastern literature because it “developed along a different historical path and thus reflects certain social and historical realities that do not align with themes of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony.” Aslan effectively implies that Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and Pakistani writers have unique access to historical experiences and political aspirations wholly alien to Hebrew literature. Thirty centuries of Jewish intellectual contributions throughout the Middle East, in Aslan’s view, have been left untouched by the momentous antagonisms and transformations that gave birth to the modern Middle East. The exclusion of Hebrew literature and Jewish authors—whether driven by ignorance or political animus—inevitably continues the negation of Jews as an indigenous component of the region’s rich cultural tradition. All this for a people who endured the ire of Nebuchadnezzar and the pharaohs, among other Mideast tyrants, and in the process produced a global classic otherwise known as the Bible.

Consider the fact that the Iraqi-born Israeli novelist Sami Michael does not appear in the volume. Born in 1926, Michael was a Communist and anti-colonialist forced to flee Iraq around the time of Israel’s creation. He went to Iran, was arrested there, and arrived in Israel in 1949; to this day he refuses to call himself a Zionist. He continued to write in Arabic before eventually switching to Hebrew decades later.

Nobel laureates like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz are deservedly included, but the first Middle Eastern writer to win the literature prize—Israel’s S.Y. Agnon—fails to make an appearance. Moreover, if Aslan is so concerned with colonialism, where are the great North African writers like the Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi, whose The Colonizer and the Colonized is a classic of the genre? Where is Morocco’s Edmond el Maleh, who began a storied literary career in his 60s writing in French from Paris before returning to Rabat in 1999? (He died in November.) And where is Shmuel Moreh, the Hebrew University professor who writes Arabic poetry and whose articles and memoirs in Arabic are the subject of great attention on the Arabic Internet?

The absence of Jewish authors and modern Israeli literature is merely a symptom of the kind of silent cultural eradication that too often targets many of the region’s indigenous peoples. This deficiency parallels America’s poor familiarity with the region—and thus Aslan ends up compounding the problem he claims to be remedying.

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Jews, if not Jewish authors, do make cameos throughout the anthology. Very few of these appearances are anything but political. In his memoir of growing up bitterly poor during the early years of the Turkish Republic, for example, Aziz Nesin tenderly recalls a Jewish neighbor’s singing lulling him to sleep as he recovers from a late circumcision: “I came to the world to laugh; I cry and I don’t know why. . . . ” In a surrealist short story by Sait Faik Abasiyanik, another Turkish literary heavyweight, the narrator describes a raki-sodden and vaguely erotic encounter with a Jewish woman interrupted by the sudden arrival of her husband. No violence ensues. The three end up only drinking more raki.

More often, though, the Jews are typecast as colonial brutalizers and wielders of secret and infinite power on the world stage. The low point in this grotesque demonology undoubtedly comes in the form of Iraqi Mozaffar al-Nawwab’s incendiary poem about the 1976 massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian forces. For al-Nawwab, the ultimate blame belongs to the international Jew—and to the Arab leaders whose lack of testicular fortitude prevents Arabs from confronting him:

A meeting [was] convened
It’s a coincidence, I swear, sheer coincidence
That there were six members
And that the corners of the star are six in total
Oh, star of David, rejoice
Oh, Masonic Lodge, go wide with delight
Oh, finger of Kissinger. . . .
For the royal asshole is hexagonal!

Jews and Freemasons colluding to rape Arabs, or the impotence of a literary imagination trapped by hatred.

Also featured is Abu Salma, the artless poet laureate of Palestinian rejectionism. (“My country! Live in safety, an Arab country, / may the jewel of your tradition continue smiling / Though they’ve partitioned your radiant heart / our honor denies partition.”) Through all this, Aslan’s editorial interventions fail to offer any critical distance from this one-sided narrative of Israeli aggression and Arab victimhood. Instead, Aslan is content to spotlight the secularism of the likes of al-Nawwab and Abu Salma—as though all this vicious enmity toward Jews is somehow less odious coming from nationalist and leftist intellectuals than it is when voiced by cave-dwelling holy warriors and other genocidal theo-fascists today.

Even so, at a time when Western elites—urged on by such proponents of “engagement” as Aslan—are hysterically eager to reach out to all kinds of unhinged ayatollahs and muftis, it is refreshing to encounter Middle Eastern intellectuals deeply committed to a once-thriving, indigenous tradition of secularism. Pakistani novelist Sa’adat Hassan Manto exemplifies the anticlerical tradition in his memoir of a youth misspent in 1920s Amritsar, then a hotbed of India’s anti-colonial revolution. With a plucky irreverence that would surely put him beyond the multiculturalist pale today, Hassan Manto skewers the stale asceticism of Hindu and Muslim zealots alike: “to turn living people into mere vegetables, without drive or passion, is beyond me. . . . What kind of humans have no feeling for beauty, no zest for life? Show me the difference between the ashrams, madrasas, and vidyalas that accomplish this and a field of horseradishes!” Meanwhile, Nader Naderpour describes “a joyless garden” in Qom, the seat of Iran’s Shia clergy,

with sparse trees
empty of laughter
silent of speech
a half-filled pond
with muddy water
a few old ravens
on scattered rocks
groups of beggars
at every step
turbans white
faces black.

Just as remarkable are the women writers featured in the anthology, whose contributions puncture Aslan’s anti-imperialist narrative at every turn—offering, instead, views into subjective spaces usually foreclosed by the region’s reigning patriarchy. The taboo-shattering poems of Iran’s Forugh Farrokhzad are a revelation: “I have sinned a rapturous sin / beside a body quivering and spent / I do not know what I did O God, / In that quiet vacant dark.”

So are the poems of Pakistani feminists Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, who valorize “impure” and “sinful” women in courageous lines of verse that, in Riaz’s case, led to charges of sedition under General Zia-ul-Haq in 1980, followed by almost a decade of self-imposed exile.

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The most compelling of the writers featured in Tablet and Pen, then, undermine conventional wisdom about the Mideast. The least compelling of the contributors are precisely the committed anti-imperialists. None more so than the Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, whose 1962 essay on “Westoxification” fits in most closely with Aslan’s “single sustained narrative.” In it, Al-e-Ahmad claims that the “East” (defined economically rather than geographically) is infected with “Weststruckness.” He tells his fellow Iranians that “we’ve not been able to retain our own cultural/historical personality during our encounter with machines and in the face of their inevitable assault. In fact, we’ve been destroyed by them.” Lack of technical know-how, combined with the ravages of Western imperialism, has sapped the confidence of Eastern societies, forcing them to permanently and pathetically ape the West.

The essay, Aslan informs us, “is still regarded as one of the most influential anti-imperial tracts ever written.” That may well be, but what Aslan neglects to mention is the extent to which the term “Westoxification” and the ideas behind it have since become the object of ridicule in Al-e-Ahmad’s native Iran. (Tehrani students sarcastically reproach each other for being “Westoxicated” before getting intoxicated in defiance of mullah-imposed prohibition.)

And for good reason. It is no exaggeration to say that Al-e-Ahmad and his intellectual cohort, as much as Ayatollah Khomeini and Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb, helped set the modern Middle East’s twisted ideological mold: suspicious, conspiratorial, and brimming with ressentiment. Al-e-Ahmad’s essay is the literary embodiment of the paranoid style in Middle Eastern politics. “Behind the scenes at every plot, coup d’état, or uprising in Zanzibar, Syria, or Uruguay, one must look to see what plot by what colonialist company or government backing it, lies hidden,” he rants, foreshadowing Dear Uncle Napoleon, the paranoid title character in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s wonderful 1973 comic novel, who suspects a “British hand” behind every inane local development. Needless to say, Dear Uncle Napoleon is also nowhere to be found in Aslan’s compendium.

Today dictators across the region deploy similar rhetoric to smear dissidents as foreign agents and justify their repression. Ethno-sectarian minorities, too, have borne the brunt of all this conspiracism. Al-e-Ahmad, for example, characterizes the Baha’i—arguably the most victimized religious minority in the region—as Western-inspired seditionists against the Middle East’s “Islamic totality.” Aslan is silent. Al-e-Ahmad is an anti-imperial icon, after all.

Taking pen to tablet to document or condemn the erosion of traditional identities is neither a uniquelyMiddle Eastern practice nor necessarily wrong. But the same impulse translated into political programs to purify culture from external sources of influence and restore the imagined wholeness of some pristine past is—as European history tragically attests—a recipe for disaster. The Middle East, too, has paid the price of such illusions. More than the scars of colonialism, the region bears the scars of physical and moral devastation wrought by all manner of purifiers—secular and religious, statesmen and intellectuals—who ceaselessly draw lines in the sand between what is Turkish and what is insulting to Turkishness, between the Islamic and the un-Islamic, between East and West.

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I have so far focused mostly on the thematic content of Tablet and Pen. But the literary strategies deployed by writers often reveal more about them—and the social contexts in which they write—than their own expressly avowed political sympathies. Here, the modernist forms adapted by Middle Eastern writers belie their avowed hostility to Western modernity.

Take “The First Lesson,” by Arabic short-story pioneer Yahya Haqqi. Set almost entirely at the tiny train station abutting a turn-of-the-century Egyptian village, the story is simple enough: the young son of the station master, neglected by his father, forms a precious bond with the kindly Sudanese station guard but then must watch as the old man is crushed beneath the passing train in a horrific accident. Even as he decries the cruelties of modernity, Haqqi also demolishes the traditional elements of Arabic story-
telling. Gone for the most part are the classic stylization and structural symmetry. Instead, an austere realism in the manner of Hemingway is the order of the day: “The train continued, dragging the corpse beyond the platform where it dropped off. It rolled to within a couple of yards of the hut that was scented with Sudanese incense. There was no sound. . . . ”

Or take the poetry of Manouchehr Atashi, which sharply contrasts the serenity and authenticity of rural life with the chaos and alienation of the urban experience:

Let’s go back to our own mountain moments,
to breakfast of warm bread in goats’ first milk
in starling-dappled blue valleys, where rebel fires cast a flickering
net.

[A man will eventually retch
at the sandwich halves, buckets of food
scrapped at the end of the night
in restaurants round the world
—even absent Africa’s hungry stare.
From AIDS-wrung carcasses in garbage.]

The fondness for enchanting valleys and wondrous tea is quintessentially Persian. But Atashi’s is the Persian idyll ruthlessly deconstructed. Like the railway that mercilessly disrupts the peacefulness of Haqqi’s Egyptian village and his young protagonist’s holistic sense of community, Atashi’s free verse plows through the elaborate rhyme schemes and ornamental architecture associated with classical Persian poetry.

Aslan devotes little attention to the incongruity of form and content in the works of the Middle Eastern modernists featured in Tablet and Pen. That incongruity undermines his one-dimensional, anti-imperial frame, which reduces centuries of interaction between cultures to an endless litany of Western sins (“the disrupted histories and ravaged lands, the depletion of resources and inequities in wealth and status,” etc. etc.). The modern literature of the region simply cannot be so easily enlisted in the effort to relitigate these grievances in such a biased forum. Even the most reactionary among these writers has been liberated by formal innovations of a decidedly Western provenance—their nostalgia for a serene pre-modernity notwithstanding.

This is not to say that the development of literary modernism in the Middle East was driven solely by Western cultural influences. But it is to point out that, when and where they have occurred, intercultural transactions have borne fruit for an otherwise insular region. And there is no better evidence for this proposition than the century’s worth of literary modernism captured in Tablet and Pen. Sadegh Hedayat’s nightmarish, surrealist novel The Blind Owl owes a heavy debt of gratitude to Kafka; Adonis’s poem “Grave for New York” is addressed to Whitman; Nazim Hikmet’s poetry breathes Ottoman history, yes, but also the Spanish verse of Lorca and Neruda. If being “Westoxicated” means that the next generation of Middle Eastern writers will bequeath an equally majestic literary legacy, let them drink themselves into a stupor.

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In his introduction, Aslan expresses the hope that his anthology might “provid[e] a new paradigm for viewing the mosaic that is the modern Middle East” or at least offer “a new, constructive set of ideas of metaphors . . . with which to understand the struggles and aspirations of this restless and multifaceted part of the world.” And yet he closes with this bit of historical trivia: “Among the first Egyptian artifacts plundered by the French [during the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt] were a pair of grand obelisks known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles.’ Today, the first of these obelisks stands along the River Thames in London; the second has stood for more than a century in New York’s Central Park.” The implication is clear. A straight line can be drawn from European imperialism to American hegemony, which “has displaced the old colonial powers to become, for better or worse, a dominant and unavoidable presence in the lives of the people of the Middle East.” From one act of material and cultural theft to another, nothing has changed.

But the archaeological dimension to Aslan’s own defining metaphor discloses more than he likely intended. Aslan’s governing theory is a worn-out relic of little use in the struggles the region’s inhabitants must wage today—against autocracy and obscurantism—to avoid further ruin. He is Mr. Pourmand, my eighth-grade teacher, writ large. And as his desire to emigrate suggested, even Mr. Pourmand has likely moved on.

About the Author

Sohrab Ahmari is co-editor of Re-Orient, Palgrave MacMillan’s forthcoming anthology of essays by young Arab and Iranian reformers.