I shall be traveling, talking, giving papers for the next three weeks. Friends and lovers in Chicago, Boston, New York and Madison are urged to get in touch. Others are wished well. Kindly look forward to posts – like a bunch of ’em! I promise.

Sunday Reading for Rob Priest

It has been a while since the Sunday reading was last done and I actually didn’t even manage to do my sunday readings until early monday morning. Yet, here we are:

  • “He set it for 7.00. That was 7am on this thing. For 7pm, what he wanted, it should have been 19.00.” Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nair’s Inside the mind of the Times Square bomber is an absolute must-read. It originally appeared in the Granta: Pakistan issue.
  • “In 1891, Gauguin headed to the south Pacific to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional”, though his impression of Tahiti as an endless, guilt-free erotic idyll was gleaned principally from the works of the then massively popular Romantic novelist Pierre Loti.” I once wrote a thesis on Gauguin, who is getting the full-treatment at the Tate Modern. Good times. On Pierre Loti, see this.
  • “The dead speak in Kashmir, often more forcefully than the living.” Basharat Peer’s Kashmir’s Forever War, also in Granta is a must-must-must read.
  • “Ngai, a union organizer turned historian, has chosen to write what she calls a “middle-class” history”: review of Mai Ngai’s The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America, NYT, September 17, 2010.
  • “When I die, that’s when I’ll be famous”: Lost libraries: The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections by Craig Fehrman, September 19, 2010.
  • “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.” Elif Batuman, Get a Real Degree, LRB, 23 September 2010. The one Iowa MFA/English PhD I know has not issued a public comment, so far, but Aaron has a nice round-up of responses.
  • “In any case, names you should know”: A Primer on Saudi Lit, Abdulrahman Munif to Present, M. Lynx Qualey, 19 September, 2010.

Save The Children

I have a piece up in Express Tribune, ‘If you have understanding, then why this hubhub?’, Sep 9th, 2010, in reference to, Punjab govt goes after Hindu mythology cartoons

The politicians are afraid, I assume, that watching the Amar Chitra Katha cartoons – which depict stories from the Mahabharata or Ramayana or Jataka or Panchatantra – will turn impressionable Punjabi Muslim children into Hindus. I would reassure the politicians – the Panchatantra tales were translated into Arabic and distributed in the late seventh century as Kalila wa Dimna, for the edification of courtly children, and failed to make the Umayyad or the ‘Abbasid or the Buyid sultans Hindu. Subsequent translations and re-imaginings of Ramayana, of Yogavashistha in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century Mughal courts were also done without the fear that exposing innocent Muslim children to these narratives will make them “Hindu” – leaving aside the glaring logical fallacy that mere knowledge about the stories and rituals associated with a faith makes one a convert. That this statement is being made on Punjabi soil, however, is one of those ironies that make you cry.

Punjab, after all, is the land of Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah – mystics whose poetry, lives, ethos were drenched in divine, both lil-lah and Krishna. Their kafi and their qissa drew equally on Perso-Islamic and Sanskritic mythologies, stories, folk-tales to illuminate daily lives, teach love, moderation and acceptance. The love of Shah Hussain and Madho Lal is itself legend. Their words and verses are, undoubtedly, the very definition of “Punjabi”, and there they stand, historically “tainted” in the views of Punjab politicians with “Hindu” signs, symbols, stories and themes, corrupting Punjabi children for nearly 400 years.

Happy Burn Robert Ketton’s Koran Day

Robert of Ketton’s Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete(The Religion of Mahumet, the Pseudo Prophet) was the one of the earliest Latin translation of the Qur’an, done under the aegis of Peter the Venerable (d. 1156). It became the standard text, getting circulated and printed through the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Islam was long considered a Christian heresy but Ketton’s translation (the first complete one) cemented the fullest pictures of this “death-dealing” religion for all Christendom.

The flowering of the panic about Islam in Europe, however, arrived after Vienna was besieged by the Ottomans in 1529. The Turks, made known in widely circulated genre pamphlets called Türkenbüchlein were known to be kidnappers, rapists, murderers and determined to forcefully convert Christians to Islam. Though the Türkenbüchlein were in circulation long before the siege of Vienna, they reached their bestseller-hood only in 1529 when Martin Luther wrote two, Vom Kriege wider die Türken and Eine Heer predigt wider den Türken. In them the Turks, and Islam, were God’s punishment from without (as the Pope was the devil within) who were heralding the end of days. The Latin translations of the Koran played a central role in this genre of books, feeding tiny bits of de-contextualized, glossed verses to build the case against Islam (It was a religion of blood-thirsty invaders intent on taking over the known world). Ketton’s (and Mark of Toledo’s) translations of the Koran made brisk printing business throughout the 1530s and 40s – even though they skirted the law against publishing heretical materials. One such case, for printing banned material, was made against the printer Oporinus in 1541, and to whose defense Martin Luther wrote a letter:

It has struck me that one is able to do nothing more grievous to Mohammad or the Turks, nor more to bring them to harm (more than with all weaponry) that to bring their Koran to Christians in the light of day, that they may see therein, how entirely cursed, abominable, and desperate a book it is, full of lies, fables and all abominations that the Turks conceal and gloss over. They are reluctant to see the Koran translated into other languages, for they probably feel that it would bring about apostasy in all sensible hearts.1

Luther goes on to argue that despite the authorities concern about spreading heresy, the Christian cannot “take steps against its secret poison, preached on corners, and warn and protect the church”.

I know that in popular parlance it is the Muslim societies which are “stuck” in Medieval Times ® (see The Daily Show‘s hilarious segment on Iran from a day or so ago) but can you tell me what exactly is the difference between Martin Luther’s take on Islam versus what is coming out of Sarah Palin or Florida Pastor Dude’s mouth? I hate it when a “few bad apples” spoil modernity for the rest of us.

  1. Harry Clark, “The Publication of the Koran in Latin a Reformation Dilemma”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 3-12 []

Literary Travelers

I have a new column at Bookslut. The title of my column comes to you courtesy of Sepoy. Here’s the link. The column is meant to introduce readers to South Asian literature beyond the Barnes and Noble display tables. The first installment is a review of India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Chandrahas Choudhury. Suggestions for titles to review from you, gentle readers, are always welcome.