Commentary Magazine

Tales of Islam

The novel, it used to be said, brings the news about our social and moral condition. In the West, many novelists have taken to abdicating that role in favor of political fantasy, epistemological sport, or the fingering of psychosexual wounds. But in the Islamic world, or so it would seem from a number of recently published translations, novels still focus on the great public questions as they shape individual consciousness and conduct. As a way into that world's understanding of itself, fiction may afford a deeper and more variegated view of reality than the one that comes to us on editorial pages or in the evening news.

The current wonder among literary imports from the Islamic world is Orhan Pamuk, a Turk with many connections in the West. Before him, only two novelists from that world had won any significant reputation in English translation: the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, known principally for The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) and the only Arab writer ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Abdelrahman Munif, born of Saudi parents in Lebanon, who likewise made his mark with a trilogy, Cities of Salt (1984-89). Mahfouz's masterpiece portrays three generations of a Cairene family from 1917 to 1945, and is informed by a fundamentally liberal and universalist vision. Munif's trilogy, by contrast, tends to scant private in favor of public life: his protagonists transform a traditional Arab desert kingdom into an oil-pumping subsidiary of the American industrial empire, and his trilogy is marked by strident polemicizing against the predatory West and its Arab collaborators.

These two disparate approaches and variations on them seem largely to have defined the imaginative territory of succeeding novelists as well, or at least those whose work has found its way into English. The great theme that announces itself more or less loudly is the vast divide between Islamic East and liberal West (including Israel). In some fictional treatments, the allure of modern Western liberalism heralds a drastic break, for good or ill, with Islamic faith and custom; in others, the fear of Western license, combined with the shame of longstanding Muslim failure, prompts a recoil into nationalist fanaticism or religious zealotry. The novelistic results, whether judged aesthetically or philosophically, are fascinating—if, to say the least, mixed.


The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, published in Beirut in 1998 but only now available in English,

1 attempts nothing less than an epic summation of Palestinian woe since the birth of Israel in 1948. The story is recounted by one Dr. Khalil, who is tending to a comatose fedayeen named Yunes in a Beirut refugee camp. Khalil is in fact barely qualified to be a nurse—he had three months of medical training in Mao's China—and a doctor is not what he set out to be: he was himself a proud and fierce warrior in Arafat's Fatah movement until a grenade pulverized one of his vertebrae and left him unfit for soldiering. The tales he tells his unconscious patient are mostly war stories—of his own experiences, the sufferings of people he has known or merely heard of, even the exploits of Yunes himself. The record is principally one of defeat after defeat, and death upon death. But as in the Iliad, each fallen hero merits at least a word about the manner in which death took him, and nearly all of the fallen are heroic in their defiant innocence.

Around this blasted trunk, stories of love wind like lyric vines. But their sweetness, too, is blighted. Yunes, who once told Khalil that “I fought for the sake of a woman I loved,” almost never saw his wife and children, having sacrificed personal happiness in the name of the larger struggle. Khalil's own experience has been—fleetingly—more hopeful. He had fallen in love with Shams, a paragon of Palestinian womanhood who commanded her own guerrilla brigade and who had killed a fellow warrior when he reneged on his promise to marry her. She was the first Palestinian woman, Khalil declares in admiration, to avenge a man's offense against her honor. But then Shams is murdered in turn, brutally machine-gunned by the dead man's posse.

One night, we read, as Khalil goes in search of photographs to illustrate his stories, a beautiful stranger asks him for directions, and they end up eating and drinking and making love. The encounter promises to reconnect Khalil to the springs of life: “Then all I remember is her arm around me and me being with her, around her, in her. Revolving and rising and tasting nectar such as I'd never tasted in my life.” But when he returns to the hospital, he finds his patient Yunes dead; and when he later returns home, the nameless woman is gone. Thus do Khalil's consuming public and private passions turn to dust. In the novel's concluding sentences he can only grope his way through darkness: “I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of rain, and I walk and walk and walk.”

Gate of the Sun is a novel in which the dead command the living. It is only the Palestinian dead, however, who are entitled to Khalil's and Khoury's reverent attentiveness. The diabolical glamor of destruction enjoys great prominence in this book, as Khalil ardently recalls the reverence with which he and his friends used to gaze upon the ubiquitous posters honoring the Palestinian “martyrs.” Even when he pulls back to acknowledge the appeal of ordinary life, it is only to embrace a war-is-hell nihilism that ends by exonerating all who kill and die: “Evil has no meaning, and we were just its tools. We're nothing. We make war and kill and die, and we're nothing—just fuel for the huge machine whose name is War.”

Despite such scattered outcries, Khoury's novel is suffused with an intransigent warlike spirit and a remorseless hatred of the enemy who must be utterly extinguished. Israelis are portrayed here as bereft of all humanity—morally cretinous ogres who shoot unarmed old men in the face, level villages and massacre their inhabitants without a second thought, force prisoners to swallow their own broken teeth or stake them out naked on the ground all day, stone women returning to their ancestral homes, shelter livestock in abandoned mosques.

Although Gate of the Sun has been hailed by reviewers for its discernment and compassion, the fact is that its moral ledger, written in blood, feeds a self-righteous, undying enmity. To read this novel by a “moderate” Christian Arab is to glimpse some of the factors, psychological, political, and religious, that have gone into the political ascendancy of Hamas and enhanced the prospects of endless war.


Another part of contemporary Arab reality is explored in The Almond—a first novel, originally published in Paris in 2004, by a once religiously observant Muslim woman in her forties who lives in Morocco and writes under the pseudonym Nedjma.

2 It is a feast of polemical obscenity, written to overcome the patriarchal inhumanity of modern Islam and to restore a pristine delight in the physical world, including the sexual pleasures that God meant to be enjoyed by women as much as by men.

The Almond is a bitter indictment of the wholesale betrayal of Muslim women by Muslim men:

Who repudiated me? Who married and divorced me for the simple reason of safeguarding his ill-placed pride and his inheritance interests? Who beat me up after every lost war? Who raped me? Who ripped me off? Who besides me, the Arab woman, has had it up to here with an Islam you have distorted?

The molten rage of the narrator, Badra, makes the complaints of Western feminists seem tepid and trivial by comparison. And with good reason. As a seventeen-year-old girl in the Moroccan village of Imchouk, Badra is engaged by prearrangement to a forty-year-old notary named Hmed—a transaction conducted between the two mothers as in “a souk where human flesh is sold at a third of the price of regular meat.” After the prospective husband's mother and sister “examined me from top to bottom, feeling my breasts, my behind, my knees, and finally the curve of my calf,” Badra is forced to submit to a digital examination to confirm her virginity.

And that is just the beginning. The wedding night becomes a grotesque ordeal when Hmed cannot pierce her hymen; at last, brute force prevails as Badra's mother-in-law and her own sister hold her down and, when it is over, the “trophy of [her] maidenhead” makes the rounds of the village women. Five years of loveless marriage ensue in which Badra fails to become pregnant. Her husband writes her off as a total loss, his sisters taunt her with her sterility, and even her mother turns her out, telling her, “Accept your fate like the rest of us.”

Then comes her liberation. Running away to Tangiers, she finds shelter with a comparatively enlightened aunt, who restores her confidence and zest. Men come calling. Finally, at a louche and elegant party, she meets Driss, a cardiologist in his thirties just back from Paris, and she plunges headlong into love. Her initiation into sexual ecstasy transforms the way she views the world: in prose that ranges from bodice-ripper abandon (“The taste of eternity. The world had suddenly become a caress.”) to throbbingly clinical exactitude, Badra explores every pleasure her body can have. In the process, she sheds Islam for a new religion:

I knew I was living in pagan territory, that my faith had disappeared between my legs, daunted by the fact that bodies can give each other such pleasure. I knew I had crossed a divine line after crossing a social line, one that had cost me nothing. I knew that in Driss's hands I regressed into a creature from before the time of Jesus, before the Koran, before the Flood. That from here on in, I was addressing myself directly to God.

Of course it cannot last. After ten years as his loving mistress, Driss fails her, roping her into a foursome with lesbian prostitutes that leaves her emotionally ravaged, revealing an affair he is having with another man, and browbeating her with the loveless philosophy of the sovereign crotch (“We shouldn't complicate existence [beyond the genitals], my nightingale”). Leaving Driss, she pursues a promiscuous sexual career, traveling the world and pocketing a fortune from men she despises, indifferent to the pleasure she gives, rapacious in the pleasure she takes—until, at the novel's shamelessly sentimental end, Driss, dying of cancer, crawls back to her, lamenting his wrongdoing and professing his love. The two of them live together chastely until his death.

To a Western reader, The Almond can be both all too familiar and quite beguilingly exotic. The literary tradition that praises sexual boldness and offers salvation by way of erotic transgression is well-thumbed to the point of boredom, from Lady Chatterley's Lover to Tropic of Cancer, Couples to An American Dream, Fear of Flying to The Vagina Monologues. But that a Muslim woman should write a book so unabashed in its sexual coarseness, so brazen in its violation of Islamic decorum, can still startle and even thrill.

Unfortunately, pornography, even when earnestly convinced of its vast social consequences, is still pornography, and the route Badra takes up from slavery is more than a little ridiculous. If a Western woman writing in this vein—for instance, the former ballerina Toni Bentley, whose memoir of transcendence through anal sodomy was a recent popular and critical success—deserves to be treated like a fool, her Islamic counterpart can hardly be considered a visionary. The difference is that Nedjma is serious in a way Toni Bentley is not, and has risked a great deal in committing what millions of her coreligionists would consider capital transgressions. One can easily understand that, to some Muslims who manage to get their hands on a copy, The Almond, for all its inanity, could be a life-giving book.


Something similar might be said of a triple-decker Bildungsroman by the Saudi writer Turki al- Hamad, of which only the first two volumes, Adama (2003) and now Shumaisi,

3 have appeared in English. For Hisham, al-Hamad's hero, school textbooks are pap, and on his vacations in Beirut he loads up on writings that the Saudi censors prohibit: the politically incendiary classics of Western socialism and sexually fevered European novels that scorch his young consciousness, formed as it has been by parental stricture, monarchic authority, and religious edict.

Sex obsesses young Hisham, whom we follow in these two volumes through his final years in secondary school in a provincial Saudi city through his first year at the university in Riyadh. But his pursuit of erotic happiness is impeded by misgivings rooted in his pious upbringing. When a cousin arranges a hook-up for him on a carpet in the desert with Raqiyya, a local slut, Hisham is unable to follow through. A second attempt is more successful, although a reflex of self-disgust propels him back to penitent rectitude; at the mosque, he prays “as he had never prayed before.” To no avail: not only does Raqiyya become a habit but Hisham embarks on a career as a voyeur and ends up impregnating a woman who has watched him watching her. Soon enough, he comes to feel “all the misery of the world in his soul.”

Politics turns out to be even more perilous than sex. In Adama, a firebrand schoolmate recruits Hisham for a cell of the outlawed Arab Socialist Baath party, whose members regard it as the sole agency capable of taking on the demonic host of “Zionism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, the forces of reaction, treachery, and conspiracies.” By the time he becomes disillusioned with this revolutionary group, which looks to become at least as vicious and oppressive as the regime it intends to bring down, his brief involvement has made him a marked man. In the final pages of Shumaisi, Hisham's parents try to help him escape to Lebanon, but the tremulous young man is stopped at the airport and imprisoned. The volume ends with his arrival in Jeddah, where his fate will be determined by the Saudi authorities.

The cover of Shumaisi reprints a quotation from a BBC interview in which Turki al-Hamad declares: “Where I live there are three taboos: religion, politics, and sex. It is forbidden to speak about these. I wrote this trilogy to get things moving.” But in the Arab world things move slowly, or in the wrong direction. The trilogy has been banned in several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and four fatwas have been issued against al- Hamad's life. That he continues to live in Riyadh proves his nerve and resolution; that Adama sold 20,000 copies in its Arabic edition, enough to make it a best-seller, is cause for hope that others may find their nerve as well.

As fiction, al- Hamad's work may appear thin and undistinguished, especially if measured against such masters of the Bildungsroman as Goethe and Stendhal, Flaubert and Mann. But as with Nedjma's Badra, the unthinkable ordeal that Hisham must pass through to claim his manhood—or, perhaps, to lose it—endows him with an exemplary seriousness. Philip Roth's distinction between the West and the Communist bloc—here, everything goes and nothing matters; there, nothing goes and everything matters—applies to the world of these literary creations as well. One awaits the third volume of this trilogy with expectancy and trepidation.


And this brings us back to Orhan Pamuk, the writer from the Islamic world who is today most celebrated in the West. Raised in a secular family and educated at Istanbul's Robert College, Pamuk is fluent in English and has taught in the University of Iowa's creative-writing program. Tracing the arc of his career fifteen years ago, John Updike wrote that Pamuk's progress from 1978 to 1990 had recapitulated the development of the Western novel: Cevdet Bey and Sons, regrettably never translated into English, is a family saga under the influence of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks; The Silent House, also untranslated, channels Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner; The White Castle, puckishly postmodern in the Borges and Calvino manner, affects to be a 17th-century manuscript dredged up from an archive by one of the characters in The Silent House; and The Black Book boasts the rarefied complexity of the post-postmodern.

Pamuk, Updike concluded in 1991, “evidently knows all the tricks Western literature has to teach.” But he has deployed these formal borrowings almost exclusively to examine the encounter of Islamic traditionalism with Western innovation, and his examination is almost always subtle and intelligent. Among his earlier novels, The White Castle is a work of hopeful enchantment that searches the wounds Christendom and Islam have inflicted on each other over the centuries and offers the balm of perfect mutual understanding won by intense effort. At a distance of twenty years—the novel appeared here in 1985—Pamuk's aspiration to concord in the face of intractable enmity almost makes one weep.

Subsequent novels have returned again and again to the divide between Islam and the West, and on each revisiting Pamuk has come to see less and less chance of reconciliation. His latest effort, Snow,
4 cranks up the tension between Westernized liberalism and Islamist intransigence. Kerim Alkasoglu, who goes by the moniker Ka, is a forty-two-year-old Turkish poet and socialist activist who has spent the past twelve years as a political exile in Germany. A visit to his native Istanbul leads to a journalistic assignment to investigate a suicide epidemic among young girls in the city of Kars, near the Armenian border, and to an erotic pilgrimage to win the hand of the beauteous Ipek, whom he knew long ago and intends to bring back to Germany with him.

The suicides are “head-scarf girls,” devout Muslims who kill themselves when the local authorities ban covered women from attending school. Ka, irreligious by upbringing and long practice, nevertheless finds this forlorn locale alight with numinous energy: “the desolation and remoteness of the place hit him with such force that he felt God inside him.” The result is a rapturous flood of poetry after years of creative dryness.

But Ka knows that such belief as he has marks him as alien in his native land, where “faith in God was not something achieved by thinking sublime thoughts and stretching one's creative powers to their outer limits; nor was it something one could do alone; above all it meant joining a mosque, becoming part of a community.” Increasingly, it has also come to mean demonstrating one's willingness to die or to kill for Islam—which in today's Turkey means waging war against the country's Westernized and secular democrats.

Against this background of incipient conflagration, Ka conducts a peripatetic theological discussion with anyone willing to take part. But he discovers that his soul lies incorrigibly on the Westernized side of the line: “he now knew that the greatest happiness in life was to embrace a beautiful, intelligent girl and sit in a corner writing poetry.”

Pamuk's novel suffers from thematic overkill and perhaps more than a little oversimplification. Starkly setting the Western pursuit of happiness against the Muslim desire to turn every thought toward God—and, in extreme form, toward the destruction of His enemies—he labors ceaselessly to ensure that nobody will miss the point that in such a contest, liberalism is bound to be defeated. Ka wins Ipek only to lose her when she suspects him, perhaps correctly, of betraying her former lover, an Islamist terrorist, to the authorities. He returns to Germany alone, where he will be gunned down in the street as payback for his treachery.

Still, hammered as it may be, the point remains of the utmost significance, and Pamuk's insistence on it shows how far both he and Turkey have come from the blithe hopes of The White Castle. As he sees it, political Islam explodes the Western ideal of self-contained happiness in the form of a purely private life, leaving a choice only between God and death. In a non-fiction work, Istanbul: Memories and the City,
5 a cultural history filtered through recollections of his youth, he writes bitterly that the “stupidity of the pious” possesses the force of passionate certainty, while Turkey's democratic secularists are given only to invertebrate wriggling, grappling “with the most basic questions of existence—love, compassion, religion, the meaning of life, jealousy, hatred—in trembling confusion and painful solitude.”

How many Muslim secularists share such confusions is hard for an outsider to know. One can only hope that more of them are steelier in their liberal convictions than are their paralyzed or self-hating counterparts in the West. (Unfortunately, Pamuk himself, who was briefly prosecuted in Turkey last year for speaking publicly about the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman empire in World War I, has recently joined the useful idiots of PEN in denouncing the “savage, cruel war”—the war “against” Iraq, as he grotesquely terms it—that is “the shame of America and the West.”) In such types, at any rate, and in those like them, we have placed many of our own hopes for the democratic transformation of the Islamic world.

What these novels from that world mainly reveal is a terrific if inchoate moral energy pressing for change and a resistance that is daunting in its fanaticism and its taste for blood. The works of these novelists hardly constitute a decisive blow for freedom. But, although frequently overdrawn and crude in their characterizations, and constricted in their sense of the diversity of human possibility, they remind us that the war we are in is indeed a war to the death, and that at stake in it is our own future as well.



1 Translated by Humphrey Davies. Archipelago Books, 539 pp., $26.00.

2 Translated by C. Jane Hunter. Grove Press, 241 pp., $22.00.

3 Saqi Books, 320 pp., $15.95 (paperback).

4 Knopf, 426 pp., $26.00.

5 Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95.


About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.

Pin It on Pinterest