Law and Conversation

August 20, 2010

Stories from the Islamic world

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an editorial this week in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations” .  She argues that Western news media have incorrectly framed the controversies over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, the eviction of American missionaries from Morocco earlier this year, the minaret ban in Switzerland last year, and the recent burqa ban in France as matters of religious tolerance.  In Ali’s view, those matters are symptoms of a monumental conflict between civilizations.  You can listen to an interview with Ali on Radio New Zealand‘s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill” from June 18 of this year in which she suggests that democracy is incapable of addressing Islamic fundamentalism, a discouraging idea for anyone who is accustomed to using and upholding Western democratic laws and who has faith in democratic and legal solutions for conflicts.

I don’t know enough about Islam, international relations, or, indeed, Ali herself, to have an opinion on Ali’s views, which have garnered her death threats.  I do know, though, that the Islamic world has a rich storytelling tradition.  Scheherezade, after all, has to be one of the greatest storytellers ever (though she herself is a story, and was not a real person), and The Arabian Nights should lead anyone’s list of great story collections.  (Geert Jan van Gelder discussed the relative merits of the various English translations in the TLS last year.)

Here are some other books, old and recent, fiction and nonfiction, that illustrate, explain, and uphold that tradition:

1) Damascus Nights, by Rafik Schami.  Salim, a coachman in mid-20th century Damascus, inexplicably loses his voice.  For seven nights, seven of his friends gather to tell seven stories in an attempt to cure him.  (Schami writes in German.  The English translation of Schami’s latest book, “The Dark Side of Love,” was published last year.  From the reviews, it sounds like it, too, is full of great stories.)

2) Tales from the Alhambra, by Washington Irving, another great writer who was trained as a lawyer.  Stories and essays inspired by the author’s 1828 trip to the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain.  Saudi Aramco World has a virtual tour of the Alhambra here.

3) The Khamseh of Nizami.  12th century stories from a Persian poet that are as enthralling today as they were 800 years ago.

4) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.  Graphic memoir in 2 volumes from a child’s perspective about life in Iran pre- and post-revolution.  Vol. 2 chronicles Satrapi’s life as an adolescent in Vienna, where her parents send her for her own safety.  Bookslut has an interview with Satrapi here; the Guardian has one here.

5) Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azir Nafisi.  Thoughtful, analytic memoir about life in Iran pre- and post-1979, centered around Nafisi’s passion for the Persian storytelling tradition and world literature.  Jian Ghomeishi, host of the CBC’s Q radio program, interviewed her on June 15, 2010; you can listen to it here.

6) Things I’ve Been Silent About, also by Azir Nafisi.  Her second memoir, mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother.

7) Motoring With Mohammed, by Eric Hansen.  Fascinating travel tale about Hansen’s quest to retrieve his journals in Yemen, which he’d buried ten years earlier.  Hansen contributes articles to Saudi Aramco World; you can read an interview with him here.

8) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ,  An upper-middle-class Afghan boy behaves dishonorably in the first part of the book but reflects on it and, in the end, redeems himself.  A friend tells me that Hosseini’s followup novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” is even better.

Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago theatre director and professor at Northwestern University, adapted the Arabian Nights and Mirror of the Invisible World:  the Khamseh of Nizami into magical theatre productions for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre, respectively.

If you’d like to read more about the Islamic world, Saudi Aramco World is a beautiful and fascinating magazine published by the Arabian American Oil Company.  Each issue has a variety of articles on eclectic topics and is gorgeously illustrated on high-quality paper.  There’s no advertising, and the company will send it to you for FREE.

What are your favorite stories or books inspired by the Islamic world?

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