Collection Spans Modern Mideast's Literary Landscapes

Renee Montagne talks with Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American writer and scholar who edited Tablet & Pen, a new anthology of modern Middle Eastern literature.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Islamic scholar Reza Aslan wants to bring Westerners a clearer view of the part of the world where he was born, so he's turned to literature. His new anthology is called "Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes of the Modern Middle East."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That landscape is broad. It stretches from the early 1900s when Kamal Ata Turk founded a modern secular Turkey, to the present-day theocracy of Iran. The poems and essays are linked by religion and the common experience of Western imperialism. One work is by the Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed, who's also a political activist. Reza Aslan read an excerpt from one of her poems, a poem she calls "To the Masters of Countries With a Cold Climate."

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Islamic Scholar, Writer): My country is torrid. Maybe that is why my feet burn. My country is torrid. Maybe that is why there are boils on my body. And she goes on, at the end she says don't teach me to hate my torrid country. Let me dry my wet clothes in this courtyard, let me plant gold in its field, let me quench my thirst at its rivers. Let me rest beneath the shade of its trees. Let me wear its dust and wrap its distances around me.

MONTAGNE: Kishwar Naheed is unknown to most Americans. That's not the case with Lebanese-born poet Khalil Gibran. A lot of students carry his work around it in their back pockets as I did as a teenager.

Mr. ASLAN: Khalil Gibran of course is one of the Arab world's most famous poets. Most Westerners know him for his collection "The Prophet," a book that, like you, Renee, I carried around when I was a kid. I decided instead of focusing on his poetry, to start the entire collection with an essay he wrote about the revival of the Arabic language as a means of forming identity.

He says here, what is the best means to revive the Arabic language. The best and only means is to be found in the poet's heart, on his lips, and at his fingertips. The poet is the mediator between the power of invention and humanity. The poet is both the father and the mother of language. Language travels the same roads that he travels and stops to rest where he stops to rest. And if the poet dies, language sits on his grave crying over the loss, wailing until another poet passes by and extends his hands to it. And if the poet is both the father and the mother of language, the imitator is the weaver of its shroud and the digger of its grave.

Gibran goes on to say that the only way to sort of push back against the Western colonialism and to create a firm sense of Arabness is through the power of invention that comes from language. It is only the poets and the writers who can create the future of the Arab world.

MOTNAGNE: Which also was strongly linked, at this time, early in the 20th century, to independence itself.

Mr. ASLAN: What's really interesting about this collection itself is that the great poets and writers, whether we're talking about Turkish, Arabic, Urdu or Persian, were the that ones who really created the intellection foundation for independence from colonialism. They are the ones who essentially gave birth to the modern states of the Middle East.

But what's fascinating is that most of them lived to really regret that decision. In fact, many of these poets and writers whose words defined the modern Middle East, were then quickly made to be enemies of those states. Many of them were imprisoned by the very same governments that they helped put into power.

MONTAGNE: Right, which moves you in terms of the way this literature is laid out, to the part of history that included a perception of what was lost.

Mr. ASLAN: You look at a poet Nazim Hikmet, one of Turkey's greatest poets whose words really gave shape to a Turkish identity and really push forward the notion of a Turkey free from the bonds of the Ottoman Empire. And then of course, once Turkey became an independent state, suddenly Nazim Hikmet found himself to be an enemy of the state.

One of his greatest poems that is in the collection, is a poem called "Since I Was Thrown Inside." He was jailed for almost a decade by Ata Turk's regime and this poem goes like this: Since I was thrown inside, the Earth has orbited the sun ten times. And just as passionately I repeat what I wrote the year I was thrown inside. The people who are plentiful as ants on the ground, as fish in the sea, as birds in the sky; who are cowardly, courageous, ignorant, supreme, and child-like. It is they who crush and create. It is but their exploits sung in songs and as for the rest, my ten year incarceration for instance, it's all meaningless words.

And so these words that ultimately gave birth to the Turkish state, end up creating a situation in which the poet himself becomes the enemy of that state.

MONTAGNE: Could you give us an example of a poem from somewhere in the region that speaks truth to power?

Mr. ASLAN: Going to Iran, now that we're in a situation in which the government that replaced the government of the Shah, turned out to be just as bad if not worse than what we had before the revolution, the poets are once again training their pens this time against the mullahs who run the state. And what you see now is a real sense of dispossession, a sense of loss amongst a lot of these poets who feel as though their voices are being stifled. This is a poem by a very young poet named Hamid Reza Rahimi. It's called "A Quarter to Destruction."

I live like a bird that does not know why it sings, like a tree that does not know why it grows, like a breeze that does not know why it blows, and like a fish that does not know why all the rivers of the world empty in the frying pans.

In a sense what we're seeing now from the poets, is a real sense of melancholy, I would have to say. I think what you get when you read these works is that it breaks through all the stereotypes that we have of this region. You have this sense that the people of the Middle East are, in their poems and in their fiction and nonfiction, dealing with the same struggles of the human soul that we are all dealing with, that they are in conflict with their rulers. And sometimes that's an important thing to keep in mind because we in the United States have a tendency to think that the people of the region and the leaders of the region are one in the same.

But all you have to do is read these works to know that that is certainly not the case. They want to be what all peoples everywhere want to be. And that is people who are free to make up their own minds to decide for themselves who will lead them and who will lead them where. And in a sense, that's the whole point of this book.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Reza Aslan, a pleasure to have you back on the program.

Mr. ASLAN: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Writer Reza Aslan has brought together a century's worth of poems and essays in his new anthology "Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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