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Bordering on Malicious

The new Words Without Borders anthology of writing from the Middle East is marred by a key omission

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Concrete barriers at the entrance to a village on the Israeli-Lebanese border. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East (W.W. Norton), a big, diverse new anthology spanning the years 1910-2010, is published under the auspices of Words Without Borders, an organization dedicated to promoting literary translation. The name expresses a pious hope: People may be divided by artificial boundaries, it implies, but literature is as universal as human nature itself. By reading the poems and essays and stories of strangers—and even enemies, as in the previous Words Without Borders anthology, Literature From the “Axis of Evil”: Writing From Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations—we come to appreciate how much alike we are, how little reason there is for mistrust.

Insofar as American readers think of the Middle East as a region full of real or potential enemies, Tablet and Pen can be seen as another bridge-building exercise. As the editor Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and intellectual, says in his introduction, “the writings in these pages may help move our consciousness of the region away from the ubiquitous images of terrorists and fanatics and toward a new, more constructive set of ideas and metaphors.”

To frame a literary anthology as a response to political enmity, however, is already to cede ground to the mindset that the book means to change. You can see this in the odd way the anthology defines the Middle East. Tablet and Pen includes writing in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, as one would expect, but also a considerable amount of Urdu, the language of Muslims in Pakistan and India. Ordinarily, the Middle East is not considered to extend all the way to Lahore; but if it does, why doesn’t Tablet and Pen include any other languages of the Indian subcontinent, such as Hindi? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for such an anthology to include writers from Palestine, as it does; but then why does it not include any Hebrew writers, since Israel is surely just as central to the Middle East as Palestine?

The answer could not be more obvious: Tablet and Pen is really an anthology of writing from the Muslim world. The religion of Islam is what unites such diverse languages, cultures, and civilizations as Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and Arabic. Not only would there be no harm in acknowledging this, it might even make the book more saleable. Yet Aslan shies away from it:  “This is not meant to be an anthology of literature from ‘the Muslim world’—not only because many of the authors do not self-identify as Muslim but also because there is no such thing as a monolithic ‘Muslim world,’ save perhaps in the imaginations of some in the West.” Fair enough—but since the editors opt for a geographic designation like “the Middle East,” rather than one based on religion, the decision to omit Hebrew literature from the book becomes all the more striking.

It also starts to look polemical. Having dismissed Islam as the essence of “the Middle East,” Aslan opts instead for a post-colonialist identity: “What binds together the writers in this collection … is neither borders nor nationalities, but rather a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony. (It is for this reason, and to avoid further complicating the narrative, that Hebrew literature, which has developed along a different path, is not included in this anthology.)” In fact, the contents of the book resist this kind of Saidian simplicity. “Western cultural hegemony” interests only a few of the more engagé intellectuals in Tablet and Pen, while the best pieces—like Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s memoir of the Indian independence movement, “For Freedom’s Sake”—are actually critiques of the human deformations wrought by political grievance.

Yet it is precisely on Aslan’s stated grounds that Hebrew literature would have been a valuable addition to Tablet and Pen. For it, too, can be read as a postcolonial literature. Like India and Pakistan, Israel was created in opposition to the British Empire; like Iran, it is a country with an ancient culture and history that must be reimagined in the modern world. And Hebrew literature, like Arabic literature, uses a Semitic language and European forms, raising questions about Eastern and Western identity. The Israeli perspective on all these questions is different from the Arab or Iranian perspective, of course, but they are shared questions.

If Hebrew writers are not engaged in “a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony,” the troubling implication seems to be that this is because Israel is a creature of Western imperialism, while the peoples represented in Tablet and Pen are its victims. The editors of Tablet and Pen may not believe this, but a number of the contributors definitely do. Take the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, one of the few writers in the book whose name is familiar to Americans—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the only Arabic writer to win the prize so far. Mahfouz is represented by an excerpt from The Seventh Heaven, his last book, published in 2005 (though the anthology does not give any publication dates, a serious handicap for a work so engaged with history).

In Mahfouz’s tale, a young man named Raouf is murdered by his friend Anous, who is his rival for the love of Rashida. At his death, Raouf’s soul ascends to Heaven, where he is told that, while the souls of the pure can ascend to God, the souls of the sinful are reincarnated on Earth. This leads to a discussion of various famous men and their current reincarnations. Adolf Hitler, Mahfouz writes, has been reborn as “Boss Qadri the Butcher,” Anous’ father, a local thug and gangster who keeps the neighborhood in fear. But Boss Qadri, we learn, is only able to operate because he has “bought the loyalty of the shaykh,” the nobleman in charge of the district. And whose soul is reincarnated in that shaykh? “Lord Balfour,” Mahouz writes simply. In other words, the British statesman who signed the Balfour Declaration, supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland, is said to be worse, in some sense, than Hitler, who killed 6 million Jews.

This is a very troubling moment in Tablet and Pen, both because of the eminence of the writer and because of the casualness of the reference. Clearly, Mahfouz knows that his readership will share his opinion of Balfour and, by extension, of Israel. And this kind of reflexive hatred can be found in several contributors. The anthology includes a long performance poem, transcribed from a cassette, by the Iraqi Mozaffar al-Nawwab. Most of the poem is a profane satire on the corruption of Arab rulers and the cruelty of the Lebanese Christians in their civil war with the Lebanese Muslims. “What wonders the Arab oil has done for us!/ We belch to the point of indigestion from hunger/ While the Oil King is afraid of rats getting at his cash,” al-Nawwab declaims, and one can imagine how effective it would all be in performance. And then, at the end of the poem, comes this:

Naft ibn Kaaba [a satirical name for a Gulf oil sheikh] announced
That a meeting would be convened
It’s 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 wild with delight
Oh, finger of Kissinger …
For the royal asshole is hexagonal!

In this image, all of al-Nawwab’s grievances—all the problems of the Arab world—are explained by a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy. It is a concrete example of the anti-Semitic pathology that continues to flourish in the Middle East, even as some Arab intellectuals denounce it. Less mad than this, but just as dire in its implications, is “Letter From Gaza” by Ghassan Kanafani, whose biographical note explains that he was “the spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” and that he was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1972 (but not that this was a reprisal for the PFLP’s massacre of 26 people at Ben Gurion Airport in May of that year). Kanafani writes of visiting his 13-year-old niece, Nadia, in the hospital in Gaza, after she lost her legs in an Israeli bombardment. Such a scene prompts feelings of anger and revenge, of course, and then Kanafani writes: “I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad”—Safad being, as a note explains, “a small town in northern Israel.”

In other words, Kanafani is looking forward to the day when the whole country, not just Gaza, becomes part of Palestine—that is, when Israel is destroyed. Here in a nutshell is the rejectionist attitude that, as Benny Morris wrote recently in Tablet, makes Israeli-Palestinian peace talks so hopeless. The same vengefulness leads Abu Salma, another Palestinian poet, to write: “Some morning we’ll return riding the crest of the tide,/ our bloodied banners fluttering/ above the glitter of spears.” It is a good example of the kind of archaic, aestheticizing treatment of violence that writers in the West have mostly eschewed since the First World War.

One of the problems with this kind of writing is that its unreasoning hatred makes it much harder for Jewish readers to take in the honest, angry witnessing of other Palestinian writers. Zakaria Mohammad’s “This Is Home,” for instance, is a searing account of returning home to Jericho after spending decades abroad:

Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it.

Imagine this rage and resentment multiplied by hundreds of checkpoints and border crossings, and you begin to have a sense of the dimensions of the Israel-Palestine problem. I have focused on that problem in writing about Tablet and Pen, and unfortunately this means I’ve given almost no sense of the majority of the book, which is about so much else—love and desire and youth and age and hope and despair, all the universal subjects that really do make literature a source of understanding and connection across borders. But across borders doesn’t mean without borders, and not all literature is written in a humane spirit—a lesson that a reader of Tablet and Pen can’t help learning.

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Here’s an unbelievable scenario: they may have even included writings by some of the 1 million Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab countries. As for the quote from “This is Home”, this is not the “supreme truth”. The supreme truth is that these measures are necessary because his Palestinian brothers have shown us that it is more important to them to kill Jews than to have a state of their own.

I heard this book’s editor interviewed on NPR and the question about Israeli or Hebrew writers went unasked.

“BORDERING on Malicious”? Bordering on malicious? Wake up. It’s the literary equivalent of ethnic cleansing and the desire for genocide.

charles says:

Interestingly, there are Jewish names associated with this organization.
Joshua Mandelbaum…

Why am I not surprised?! Excellent piece.

There have been several anthologies of writings from the Middle East compiled for young people which reflect the same anti-Israel bias as Aslan’s book. Naomi Shihab Nye, a much acclaimed Palestinian-American writer has compiled several of them. There’s a lesson to be learned here for potential book buyers. When anything purports to be about the Middle East, don’t order it sight unseen. Read it first or at least skim it looking for instances of Israeli writings, others in Hebrew, and for hints of bias as when Israeli cities are named as being located in “Occupied Palestine.”

This is an excellent piece. Have you thought of sharing it with the people at WWB?

This type of thing can also be seen on the BBC and CNN. They both have regular shows about the middle east in general and about middle east business in particular. Israel is never mentioned. The reasons are clear; CNN in the region is headquartered in the emirates and the BBC comes from a country where the most common name for male babies is Mohamed.

“If Hebrew writers are not engaged in ‘a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony,’ the troubling implication seems to be that this is because Israel is a creature of Western imperialism, while the peoples represented in TABLET AND PEN are its victims.” I agree that this is the core of the problem. I recently said this when Gilbert Achcar came to Univ of Chgo to present his new book THE ARABS AND THE HOLOCAUST: THE ARAB-ISRAELI WAR OF NARRATIVES. The real Arab denial is not denial of the Holocaust but denial that Israel had to fight for independence from the British. Much easier to believe that the British simply gave Palestine to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration—a very convenient mythology, nu?

Some one ought to alert the intellectuals over at The Daily Beast web site about their frequent contributor, Aslan the Iranian. Sadly, I never realized he was an Anti-Semite. I hope The Beast runs this story to expose him.
David (not the King ;)

tillkan says:

Balfour was a Christian anti-semite and set a trap for Jews.

sabril says:

Actually if you look at the early Zionist literature, there was talk of the Jews and Arabs teaming up against the Brits.

Anyway, postcolonialism is just an ex post rationalization for hating on whitey. And on Jews. Fed by envy and the need for Leftist types to engage in moral preening.

Empress Trudy says:

I hate to say it but reap what you sow. Tablet affects a very liberal live and let live let’s all forget how much you hate the Jews and let’s get along ethos. And that leads directly to this. Sorry.

aspacia says:

Spencer and Aslan have a running battle regarding Aslan’s lies and omissions. Go to Jihad Watch for an amusing read.

Aslan is an anti-Jewish Muslim and Iranian apologist.

I was hoping for so much more…Just another exercise in anti-semitic propoganda disguised as literature…Sad and Tragic…Hate has penetrated at all levels…Evoking Hitler in a not horrendous term, gives pause for thought…The “intellectuals” have taken a new approach to anti-Israel activity and rhetoric, they now practice delegitimization of the Holocaust by sneaking in cheap shots whenever the opportunity presents itself via literature…

Sohel Reza says:

If you don’t like the message shoot the messenger. Why so much hate towards a literary work, because Professor Aslan happens to be Muslim? Remember Rabbi Hilal, “Don’t do to some else what you don’t want done to”. Confucius had also said the same thing long before.

sabril says:

” Why so much hate towards a literary work, because Professor Aslan happens to be Muslim?”

I think the objection is more towards the contents of the work than the religion of its editor.

“Don’t do to some else what you don’t want done to”

I speak only for myself, but if I were putting together an anthology of “Middle Eastern” literature, I would include Israeli authors. And if I excluded all Muslim perspectives, I would expect and deserve to be called out on it.

Sohel Reza says:

It is a fair question you bring and there are plenty of criticism one can make. However many of the comment is nothing short of pure hate. What are we supposed to teach our children, when grown up behave this way? If tomorrow we end up in an auto accident and need blood to survive, can we say for certain the blood was from a Jew, Christian, Muslim or nonbeliever? It would be shame to talk ill of any one, because of some bad deed of individuals, after surviving on blood of unknown. We live in a complex interdependent world; it is time to reflect that. Good, Bad and the Ugly, are part and percale of all society, culture, religion and nation. Point out the bad individuals based on their action; however when we lump by association, we harm all, including ourselves. If you read the comments you will find many have hate, with out even reading Professor Aslan’s books or many articles he has written. That is sad and tragic. That is why quote the good Rabbi Hilal “Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you”

The leftist-dominated academic world rolls out the red carpet for any Muslim claiming to be a spokesman for moderates, while stifling critics of Islam, what a con game. Keep up on the real daily global news of Islam free and let its actions speak for itself:

sabril says:

” It would be shame to talk ill of any one, because of some bad deed of individuals, after surviving on blood of unknown.”

Some people deserve to be criticized, even hated.

“If you read the comments you will find many have hate,”

Can you quote the most hateful comment please?

Good article, but I believe the author misses an essential point. When Aslan writes “What binds together the writers in this collection … is neither borders nor nationalities, but rather a struggle for self-definition in the context of imperialism, colonialism, and Western cultural hegemony,” he completely omits the struggle for self-definition by Middle Eastern minorities against Islamic/Arabic cultural hegemony.

As we speak, the Syriac-speaking Christians who predate Islam are being ethnically cleansed from Iraq. Someone should publish an anthology of collected writings by Assyrians, Chaldeans, Copts, Armenians, Maronites, Berbers and Jews to counterbalance Azlan’s cultural imperialism. The Arabized, Islamicized “modern Middle East” was built on the ruins of destroyed peoples.


To Adam Kirsch and the writers of most of the “talk backs”. Very intelligent comments. Thank you for sharing.

Stephanie says:

I agree that, if it is indeed an anthology from the Middle East, then Israeli authors should have been included. But as for what is written about Ghassan Kanafani– he was not only the spokesman for the PFLP, but first and foremost one of the greatest Palestinian writers of his generation. He was also a Palestinian from within the borders of 1948 Palestine who was forced into exile, and killed while still in exile in Lebanon. It is not unreasonable that he should have dreamt of returning home in his lifetime, or that he should have dreamt of his home being Palestine again. Put yourself in the man’s shoes. What was he supposed to hope for?

sabril says:

“within the borders of 1948 Palestine”

Sheesh, there was never a “1948 Palestine.” Let me ask you this: What was the official currency of “1948 Palestine”? What were its official borders? Where was its capital? Who was its president? (Or king?)

“It is not unreasonable that he should have dreamt of returning home in his lifetime”

Probably the Arabs should have thought about these sorts of issues before rejecting the 1948 Partition Plan and trying to wipe Israel off the map.

But anyway, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Kanafani’s dreams were reasonable, it doesn’t contradict the point of the piece, which is that his way of thinking is part and parcel of the Arab rejectionist attitude which makes a negotiated peace deal so unlikely.

Zachary says:

“harder for Jewish readers…” The only Jewish readers they want are those who agree with the post-colonial victimization approach for Arabs/Moslems. Besides, why should “Jewish writers…take in the honest, angry witnessing” of Arabs. They certainly have no interest in our honest angry, witnessing about terror attacks, anti-Judaism, etc. “Imagine this rage multiplied across hundreds (?) of checkpoints…” I don’t have to imagine it: every time I fly I experience it. Every time I am in Israel and enter a store I am checked and searched; when I enter Jewish and other buildings in America I am subjected to security.

Like all human beings the writers in this book reflect “love and desire and youth and age and hope and despair.” They also reflect a deep hatred of Jews (except for a few quisling types) and Israel.

Phillip says:

Here is the URL at W.W.Norton, the Publisher of “TABLET AND PEN”, where readers can submit corrections:

W.W.Norton’s description of “TABLET AND PEN” on their website:

“A volume that celebrates the magnificent achievement of twentieth-century Middle Eastern literature that has been neglected in the English-speaking world.”

They should be told that this book has a glaring omission: Israeli literature.

Chana Batya says:

The problem in the Middle East is so multifaceted that it defies summarization in such a column, but certainly one of the wars that is being fought is not just Israeli-Arab, or Israeli/Jew-Muslim but also East-West, in which Israel now stands for the West: modern, urban, “cosmopolitan (that anti-Jewish epithet!), equality between the sexes, secularity versus the Muslim East, which is anti-modern, rural/agricultural, religious and sexually unequal. How are these two groups going to settle it out when one is anathema to the other? Coexistence has proved impossible, and this includes the Mizrahi Jews who are similarly troubled by Israel’s modernity, except that they have no place else to live, having been extruded from their homelands as surely as the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine were.

I’m pretty sure that Jordan was supposed to be the “homeland” for the Palestinian Arabs, according to the partition plan of 1947 and 1948.

I digress. I’m not at all surprised that Israel was ethnically cleansed from an anthology of literature of the region. In the minds of the Muslim Arabs (I don’t know about Christian Arabs or Egyptians or other non-Muslim residents of the region), Israel is just an extension of Europe into the Middle East. I don’t think that a Jewish state outside of the Middle East would have been nearly as disturbing to them. NOW it might because their animus has ballooned to wish for the extermination of the Jews (that of the most extreme elements, of course, much as some Jewish extremists long for the disappearance of all Arabs, sadly), but initially, say in the early 20th Century I think that if “Israel” had been located somewhere west of Prague, the Arabs would have paid it no mind. (The Germans, of course, are another matter.) We ignore this, and the war continues.

Not included in a book=not included in the world. Awful, awful. Don’t buy the book, but read it to know how they are thinking. Keep your friend close, but your enemies closer.

Of course, Modern Israeli Hebrew Literature does not belong in Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East.

The vast majority of Zionist intellectuals from the 1880s to the present have intended for the Zionist state to be part of the West, and to anyone familiar with Israel and the Europe of the 20s and 30s, Israel is simply a transplanted amalgam of German and Polish culture of that time period with a good chunk of Russian influence.

As for liberation from the British Empire, the UK was simply a partner with the Zionist Virtual Colonial Motherland to which the Zionist colony ultimately belonged while nowadays the State of Israel is the keystone of a vast Zionist Imperial System, whose rapaciousness knows no bounds: .

Zionist have been and remain the ultimate imperialists.

Leftists like Joachim Martillo have short memories. They think history began in the twentieth century. “The Middle East” is a modern construct. The Mediterranean basin, which includes the Levant, North Africa, Asia Minor (“Turkey”), Greece and Italy is not simply part of the West: it is the birthplace of the West, where Hellenism, Judaism and Christianity flourished and intermingled.

Far from being imperialist, Zionism (along with the short-lived Lebanese Phoenician movement) represents a reversal of the Arabic-Islamic conquest of the region. The ongoing destruction of Iraqi Christianity is part of a long historical pattern of violently “rewriting” the Middle East to eliminate the region’s pre-Islamic, non-Arabic (Syriac, Hebrew, Copt, Berber, etc.) heritage.

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Bordering on Malicious

The new Words Without Borders anthology of writing from the Middle East is marred by a key omission

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