Ta-Nehisi Coates Posts

“Letters to a young Muslim” by Omar Saif Gobash

Omar Saif Gobash is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. In addition to his post in Moscow, Ambassador Ghobash sponsors the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and is a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in collaboration with the Man Booker Prize in London. Ambassador Gobash wrote Letters to a Young Muslim for his two sons.

I write these letters to both of my sons [Saif and Abdullah], and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them. …I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. 

Ambassador Gobash has been in this current diplomatic post since January 2009. UAE has a population approaching ten million, with over 180 nationalities represented. The ambassador’s mother was a Russian and descended from Orthodoxy clergyman. Although his wife is from Al Ain in the Emirates and her upbringing was “more uniformly Arab and Muslim” than her husband’s they took the joint decision “that we were not going to let our children be educated to hate”.

The ambassador writes:

Because I speak English, Arabic, Russian and French, and have friends and colleagues in the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world, I have had access to the thinking that takes place within different cultures and political systems. The longer I perform my job, the more I am convinced of the power of ideas, and language, to move the world to a better place. 

One of his most significant testimonies in the book is that ” We need to find a theological and social space and place for the following ideas: doubt, question, inquiry and curiosity”.

Letters to a Young Muslim are an extraordinary set of letters written by a father to his son explaining Islam, modern geo-politics, the growing hatred towards Muslims and explaining the importance of ideas and personal experience and not just reliance on texts interpreted by a few to make the world a better place. The format of writing letters is age-old but has come back in vogue with the powerful award-winning Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Writing in the epistle form gives a sense of intimacy and allows a certain amount of “frankness” which other forms of structured prose may constrict.

It is worth reading.

Omar Saif Gobash Letters to a Young Muslim Picador, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 245 Rs 499

12 March 2017 

 

 

 

Sunil Khilnani’s “Incarnations”


Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?

p.243, “Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen (1828-1858)”

‘A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself,’ the American public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued regarding mythic constructions of liberation all over the world. ‘[C]hapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.’ In modern India’s myth of finally, formally confronting its brutal history of case, Bhimrao Ambedkar is that exceptional individual. But every Great Man story is also a story of circumstance. Had India not been devastated by Partition, the formidable lawyer and scholar who led the untouchables might not have become the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.

p.468 “Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps (1891-1956)”

Sikri’s battlements, palaces, shrines proclaim imperial grandeur. But its airy pavilions and halls share little in common with the heavy monumentalism of Versaille or the Habsburg seats of power. Parts of the city have the feeling of a tent encampment, except that the animal skins and wood frames have been replaced by stone and marble, carved with great skill by local craftsmen. Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel, at certain turns, as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawing, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s like touring the physical manifestation of a mind — the expansive, syncretic mind of its creator: Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. 

p. 165 “Akbar: The World and the Bridge ( 1542-1605)

Sunil Khilnani’s magnificent Incarnations: India in 50 Lives gives a bird’s-eye view of history via the short account of people through their ages. The fifty people profiled are those who left a significant stamp in the socio-cultural-political and economic make-up of this land evident in modern India –a nation state that is very complicated, multi-layered. These biographical accounts written like “non-fiction short stories” detail the life and achievements of the person being profiled while placing them neatly in their historical and contemporary context. Incarnations has been published to coincide with the BBC Radio 4 series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rptbv. The principle of arrangement of this book is probably borrowed from another extremely popular BBC Radio 4 series + sumptiously produced book by Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, on A History of the World in 100 Objects  ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads ).

Yet Incarnations is very much in the tradition of books written trying to make history accessible to the lay reader. To document history in this fashion probably began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to many accounts at chronicling this fascinating sub-continent by authors like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta ( for children) et al. There were many volumes that were published to coincide with the fiftieth year of Independence but it is for the first time that a historian like Sunil Khilnani has put together an account that incorporates even lesser known individuals such as Malik Ambar the African slave who become powerful political force to contend with.

We live in a noisy, reactionary and surprisingly ahistorical world where lies and misinterpretations get amplified rapidly using social media platforms. So to have a book recount landmark moments in history through well-written biographies is a crucial and much appreciated contribution to social discourse. The style of writing is wonderfully catchy beginning with the chapter headings. For instance, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen who is almost revered for her resistance to the British colonial rulers in the nineteenth century with Indian school children even today being taught to memorise poems extolling her heroism; she is simply referred to as the “Bad-Ass Queen”. The list of contents is a delight to read. Similarly are the introductory paragraphs to every chapter –packed with facts, information and incorporating the broad spectrum of views on how the moment in history being discussed in the chapter has been perceived. It is a remarkable example of immense scholarship with a fine sensibility of being able to communicate with a non-academic audience. Peppered in the book are cross-references to other chapters illustrated by the names being marked in bold, a neat technique taken from academic publications and inserted into a trade title.

Outlook magazine’s 19 February 2016 issue focussed on Sunil Khilnani’s book with generous extracts from the book along with an in-depth interview by Satish Padmanabhan. Here is a link to the special issue and interview: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/issue/11449 and http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/self-criticism-and-not-glib-self-congratulation-is-the-deepest-form-of-patriotis/296684 .

For all the stupendous historical detailing in each biography there are some disturbingly jallianwala-baghpuzzling glossing over historical facts. For instance not referring to General Dyer by name instead saying “the officer” ( p.437) or referring to the campaign of installing Gandhi’s statue in London ( 2015) led by Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife, Lady Kishwar Desai but once again not pinning it in history by taking any names. Baffling since General Dyer is well-remembered in India and the 14 March 2015topiary at Jallianwala Bagh nevers allows anyone to forget the dastardly massacre. Similarly, the campaign to instal Gandhi’s statue was a very political and public event splashed across worldwide media with David Cameron PM, UK and Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, India, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan,  Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai attending the unveiling of the statue. So it does leaves a tiny lingering of doubt about the other bits of history that may have been silenced. Even so, this is is a splendid book and must be read.

Sunil Khilnani Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 2016. Hb. pp. 636 Rs. 999

9 March 2016

 

Susan Abulhawa, “The Blue between Sky and Water”

Blue between SkyThe Blue Between Sky and Water was my first introduction to Susan Abulhawa’s writing. It is about four generations of a family but focuses primarily on Nur a descendant born and brought up in American but moves to Palestine on work/love and ultimately settles there. At so many levels I enjoyed the novel. I liked it sweeping across generations while mapping the history of Palestine (as modern people know it to be), from the 1940s. This novel has a very strong sense of history to the present day of horrific living conditions, camps, ghettos, food tunnels, unnecessary violence and rape. To be put together in one place ostensibly as fiction but embedded in hard facts is what makes it so astounding. Accessing information ( most of it disturbing) about Palestine is fairly easily got on the Internet today — the frisking and innumerable checkpoints at the border, visiting Palestine by applying for a visa application at the Israeli embassy etc. In fact a few days ago I came across wearenotnumbers.org and discovered that Susan Abulhawa is a mentor in the programme. Till then I had heard of the food tunnels but to read a story about a runner in it who then lost his job came home very sharply to me when I began reading The Blue Between Sky and Water . So to get a novel that puts it all in one place is fascinating. It makes the ground reality accessible to a far wider circle than speaking only to the converted. Using the technique of telling a story of four generations of women is a trope familiar to contemporary fiction. It is useful since it is familiar to most contemporary readers so they are lulled into a comfort zone. Plus focusing on women/ communal matriarch structures that seem to operate in the camps, gives the novelist ample opportunity to be relaxed, comment, observe and analyse frankly and in a matter-of-fact manner. The observation about women and their relationships is fascinating. I read about these all the time and yet this is a favourite passage of mine in the book about the relationship between the social worker Nzinga responsible for looking after Nur when she was in foster care and Nur. “…the thing between them remained. It changed as they needed it to. Its parts were made of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood, comradeship in struggle, political activism, mentorship, friendship.” (p. 163) Or the beekeeper’s widow who inspired other women to invest in themselves and their dwellings.

The creation of Khaled too fascinated me. The evolution from an imaginary friend to a son of the family who is then trapped in his body, so in a sense remains the observer/ non -participant he was at the very outset of the story. It gives a perspective to the story which would not be easy to introduce. Being his voice could not have been an easy literary technique to create as well.

Creating a piece of fiction about a relentless, unforgiving and senseless conflict could not have been easy for the author. Where do you start? Where do you end? So to see a neat dip into a slice of history without losing focus of the horrors of violence is probably what kept me spellbound.

In India, we have writers and readers obsessed with commemorating Partition through literature which throws up another series of questions since it is a violent moment from our past. But an emerging trend is to have writers commentating about places of “conflict” that exist in our country. Where it will take us I have no idea. A few days ago I was watching Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on The Daily Show. Many of the issues he raises in the conversation about violence, hatred, racism etc could be about any other land as well. Have you seen it? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/extended-interviews/sx47nw/exclusive-ta-nehisi-coates-extended-interview?utm=share_twitter Author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson’s moving acceptance speech for Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau) makes the valid point that “literature has the ability to accomplish a narrative shift”. ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/67546-is-this-the-greatest-book-award-acceptance-speech-ever.html ) Such writing is embedded deeply in the politics of the land and has to be but in The Blue Between Sky and Water the precision with which it comes across is so sharp. Even a first time comer to the conflict of Israel and Palestine will get a good sense of the troubles that ail the region.

I discussed Susan’s novel with her via email. We exchanged emails furiously. But here is a snippet from our correspondence that encapsulates the essence of such fiction. This quote is being shared with the author’s permission.  “…Maya Angelou once said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. I understand well how a collective trauma – Slavery, genocide, Nakba, Partition, etc. – can become a nation’s center of gravity, around and from which stories go and return. I believe that’s true in part because one’s greatest wound is often one’s greatest source of strength and power. I believe it’s why we become protective of everything cultural that belongs to that wound; why cultural appropriation, and narrative appropriation are such important issues relating to identity politics.”

Susan Abulhawa will be participating in literary festivals in 2015-16 in the Indian subcontinent — Jaipur Literature susan-abulhawaFestival, The Times of India LitFest, Hindu Lit for Life festival (Chennai), and Lahore. Here is an interview with the author from 2012 by the absolutely wonderful Marcia Lynx Qualey, Editor of Arabic Literature ( in English) http://www.full-stop.net/2012/04/16/interviews/marcia-lynx-qualey/susan-abulhawa/ .

The Blue Between Sky and Water is a shatteringly astounding novel. It is a must read.

Susan Abulhawa The Blue Between Sky and Water Bloomsbury Circus, London, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 292 Rs 499

28 July 2015