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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Back from Karachi

Hello. Uzee and I have been away to Karachi for the past 10 days, which is why this blog has been somewhat neglected. But, now I'm back in Lahore, so things will no doubt get back on schedule. (Schedule?) No doubt...

I read two great books in Karachi: The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra and Absent by Betool Khedairi. Both are highly recommended. Khadra is Algerian-born, now living in France, and he writes a lot about violence in the Muslim world (The Attack, The Swallows of Kabul). The Sirens of Baghdad is, not surprisingly, set in Iraq during the US invasion and occupation. It gives the other side of the story, from the perspective of people who are receiving the bombs, not dropping them. Library Journal says "if it doesn't scare the hell out of you, you haven't been paying attention," and they're exactly right.

Khedairi is Iraqi-born but currently living in Jordan, and Absent is about life in Iraq in the '90s under the sanctions. It's both depressing and, in an odd way, kind of hopeful--life goes on, after all. But the way it goes on is painful, and all the more so because the pain that is being inflicted so thoughtlessly and unceasingly is courtesy of a government that claims to be acting for freedom, democracy, etc.

They are both very powerful books which will make any thoughtful person question the purpose of American policies against this very poor, very weak country.

It has become fashionable to decry the Arab world's lack of translated fiction and literature; one statistic that is quoted (by George Bush for example) is that the entire Arab world, which comprises roughly 300 million people, translates only about 325 books per year. This sounds like a cause for concern, indeed. Until you discover that in the US, with roughly the same population, the number of books published in translation is--surprise!--about 325 per year. (These figures are from Harper's magazine published a few years ago.) In fact, in the four years from 1999-2002, the US translated a grand total of 13 books from Arabic into English, in an industry that published something like 65,000 books annually.

So, you know, glass houses, throwing stones, etc.

I decided I wanted to read a few novels that were not originally written in English. The good news is, there seem to be a few floating around out there. Amin Maalouf, whom I mention below, is a great place to start, as are the others I mentioned in this post. I'll keep looking. In the meantime, I'd as everyone to consider reading a book or two by a non-Western, non-US-based (or UK-based) writer. The difference in perspective is considerable between, say, Betool Khedairi and Khaled (The Kite Runner, oy) Hosseini.

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