Thursday, September 29, 2005

Recently, I picked up a copy of George Orwell's classic Homage to Catalonia which marked his disillusionment with Communism while fighting for the Loyalist side in Spain against Fascism. As I was reading it occurred to me that in contrast with Communism, Islamism as a messianic and totalitarian ideology has an absolute absence of this vast kind of literature - from dissidents, defectors or demoralized former fanatics - that offer a searing moral critique of the movement's crimes and unsated global ambitions.

The then inchoate secular Left saw such an ideological break as early as the 1860's when Dostoyevskii returned from Siberian hard labor a committed anti-radical to pen such books as Crime and Punishment and The Possessed. After the revolution when Stalinism gripped the Soviet Union and in the West, Communism reached it's apex in the 1930's we see the beginings of a literary counterrevolution - Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom and Zamyatin's s We , Bulgakov's highly symbolic The Master and Margarita ( from which it is alleged Soviet censors cut a half-million words and for which Bulgakov survived writing only because Stalin was addicted to The White Turbans, one of Bulgakov's plays).

The United States was politically rocked when an ex-Communist and former Soviet spy turned editor for TIME, Whittaker Chambers accused a former top New Deal adviser to FDR, Alger Hiss of having secretly been a Communist and later a spy as well. The Chambers-Hiss hearings and trials made the political careeer of Richard Nixon and Chambers book Witness influenced a generation of American conservatives who became foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution. ( Defenders of Hiss, a dwindling band, are reduced to arguing that Venona decrypts about " ALES" are not absolute proof of guilt ) Anticommunist writings of this type were capped by Solzhenitsyn's monumental The Gulag Archipelago which even more than Conquest's The Great Terror, was an irrevocably damning indictment of Communism.

Islamism has been in power in Iran for a generation and has held sway in Afghanistan and Sudan. It was elected then deposed and then brutally repressed in Algeria, suppressed in Egypt and Syria, straitjacketed in Turkey, bribed and subsidized in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan yet where are the books ? The reflections of the disappointed ex-jihadist turned journalist or mujahedin exile ? Perhaps such writings simply have never been translated from Arabic or Pashto but I think that unlikely. The Islamists are not peasants, they are highly educated modern Muslims in revolt against modernity. Many have been educated in the West and speak English or French. They use the internet fluidly and write as forcefully as any blogger or partisan pundit.

No, I think the absolutist emotive mentality of Islamism is simply wrong for this kind of reflective, critical, writing. Most of the adherents to violent Islamism, unlike the Western secular Communist intellectuals of yore, do not come from nations deeply steeped in a culture of literacy or intellectual inquiry. Debates are sharply circumscribed by governments and religious authority and treading around the margins of acceptable discourse can involve not a risk of criticism or public ostracism but of violence or death. They believe hermetically and do not have the cognitive framework to imagine other alternatives. Or those few that do " fall away " from the cause keep their mouths shut fast and they do not pick up pens to write elegant essays or grim memoirs. Even if they did, who would publish it ? Or read it ?

We are not likely to see such powerful and introspective works about Islamist terror for some time. If at all.
You mean, where are the books in a language you know.

That is a rather different question.

Of course the other item is asking, to what degree Arab authors write about such topics in the book/novel form.

Or restated: your questions begin at the wrong point with the wrong assumptions.
Hi Col-

A good question. How many such novels are there ? And of what caliber is the writing ? Not everything unhappy Russians put out is worth reading, believe me. A big gap exists between Nobel-prize winning lit by Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn and mundane defector books hacked out after the CIA completes its debriefing

Frankly, I'd like to see such Arab ( or Farsi) novels transliterated the way the work of Russian ( and even Chinese or Cuban) writers have been.
I can not speak to Farsi, but in Arabic the novel is simply not a terribly influential or important form of expression (regardless of what the literary types invested in it might claim).

Now, I am not much of a novel reader, lost the taste years ago, but overall I think most honest commentators would acknowledge that the novel is not a literary form that has seen natural success in Arabic. Some authors such, as Mahfouz have seen success, but it/s not the norm. Overall, having a passing familiarity with the Russo-Radical literature you refer to, and to this world, my simple opinion is that you're asking why Oranges don't have Apple skins. The Russo-Eastern European (or for that matter European) literary environment was such that these books were important, and not just among the arch-literary types.

The Arab world just does not have that dynamic, novels in large part are not a meaningful part of the equation.

Media which I might expect you would find such things emerging would be perhaps short stories, more likely plays and similar media.

As for translation of Arab novels into English, it's fairly rare but the novels themselves are not a popular medium (most novel readers I know in the region are in fact Euro type educated and as often read in French or English as Arabic).

For that I think some of things you noted towards the end are real issues, but you started at the wrong point with novels.
Hi Col -

"Media which I might expect you would find such things emerging would be perhaps short stories, more likely plays and similar media."

Hmmm. What about poetry ? Or would the locus of new cultural and political influence in the Arab world still be primarily oratorical ? ( or visual-oratorical in the case of TV)

If so, then that's a tremendous psychological gap in terms of perception of events between the Arab world and the West. Far wider than West and East ( whether we mean old Soviet bloc East or Confucian East Asia).
Poetry, yes poetry. Blindspot of mine, I don't like poetry, but it is an important medium.

I should think quasi religious commentaries as well.

I have known a handful of people who travelled from Islamist neo-Salafi extremism to 'rejecting' the same. They all seemed to lapse into religious quieticism. I have no idea, however, if that is generalisable or not.
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