Some Serious Silliness for the New Year: “The Literature of the Muslim World”

by zunguzungu

There is always a market for the serious Bernard Lewis-types who think they can summarize the “The Muslim Mind” in a few gestures, anecdotes, and clichés, and that piffle is worth regarding as the silliness it is. To talk about “Muslims” is to talk about people that are as least as different from each other as they are from their traditional opposite contrasts, “Christians” or “the West” or “Jews” or whatever. And yet, while anyone who thinks “Christian” or “Muslim” does very much analytic work as a descriptive category is a fool, it also might be that education is, on some level, a function of one’s willingness to risk being a fool and then picking up the pieces afterwards. In pursuit of the suspicion that this might be the case, I’ve been kicking around — part for fun serious, and part for serious fun — ways that one might teach a class on “Literature of the Muslim World,” somewhere between “The history of Muslims in the twentieth century as related in novels and poetry” and “Literature about the Part of the World Being Targeted by American Drones.”

There is no adequate way to describe such a survey, because the very idea of such a survey is silly: to imagine comprehending such a vast expanse of human culture and experience in a single course is to realize the utter, laughable impossibility of the task. Which may even be a laudable goal in and of itself. In any case, it’s no sillier than classes which I’ve taught on “African Literature” or “Third World Literature,” and since I think both I and my students profited from the experience, I‘d someday hope to profit from the experience of teaching this one, or some variation. So with particular thanks to a few very smart and knowledgeable people who offered some incredibly helpful commentary and suggestions, I offer you the list I’ve come up with, and would be delighted if people had more ideas for making it better. It’s a serious list, and yet it’s also not a syllabus, exactly; it’s the “dream scenario” version of the class I’d long to teach, the version of a class you come up with just before the point where you have to start getting down to the brass tacks of thinking about mundanities like assignments, attention-spans, semester lengths, and the sort of thing that makes every class a compromise with reality. This is not that; this is just a list. It is also really imperfect, I’m sure, as this is not really my field, and there are surely all sorts of ideological biases. So while I’m aware of some important omissions or slants, I‘d be more than happy to be more fully apprised of others that may occur to you.

An Antique Land, antiquity: In an Antique Land (Amitav Ghosh), plus excerpts from and about Ibn Battuta
Arabia, indeterminate: Endings (Abd al-Rahman Munif), opening to Cities of Salt (Abd al-Rahman Munif)

Palestine, 1960’s: Men in the Sun (Ghassan Kanafani), plus poems from Mahmoud Darwish
Egypt, 1917-1919: Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)
Senegal, 1920’s-1930’s: Ambiguous Adventure (Cheik Hamadou Kane)
India/Pakistan, Partition: short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai
Post-‘52 Egypt: Miramar (Naguib Mahfouz)

Lebanon, 1970’s: The Story of Zahra (Hanan al-Shaykh)
Britain, 1970’s-1980‘s: East is East (O’Donnell/Khan-Din) and My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears/Kureishi)
Istanbul, memory: Istanbul (Orhan Pamuk)
Iran, 1980’s: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) with Seyyed Mohammed Marandi’s “Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran”

Terroristan, Now: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb (Amitava Kumar)
USA, 2010: The Taqwacores (Zahra/Knight)

Additionally, just because these books are good, too:
The Country Without a Post Office, Agha Shahid Ali
Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
Palestine, Joe Sacco
Bollywood! Mughal-e-Azam, Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah
Poetry! Hafiz, Faiz, Hikmat, Antarra, Qu’ran, and Ghazals of Ghalib, ed. Aijaz Ahmad
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Assia Djebar
The Translator, Leila Aboulela
Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah