17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Two, on Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide, which is translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen and is available from Syracuse University Press.

Here is part of her review:

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

The novel takes a turn toward adventure when local officials (among them, his brother) threaten to imprison Ibn Sab‘in and his followers if he does not leave Spain. Intimidated by his unorthodox religious beliefs and vocal criticism of concessions to Christian Spain, they escort Ibn Sab‘in to Maghrib (modern day Morocco). Thus begins a long series of hasty flights and days spent hiding from government thugs. In Maghrib, however, he finds some respite and meets his wife, a wealthy widow who surpasses all his previous lovers in beauty and faith. In her loving household, Ibn Sab‘in writes his most famous work, Escape of the Gnostic:

bq For me the word escape [budd] implies a number of notions: a line of poetry, the fulcrum of a millstone, a firm principle, or you might even say that it and its synonyms all blend together to produce a single meaning, namely the loftiest ideal… the only path toward it involves uncovering its signs and secrets in the persona of an ever-striving humanity. Whoever knows himself knows his Lord, as the prophet hadith puts it. The “gnostic” of my title is one who realizes that adjuncts and additions are mere coincidentals, or rather fantasies. Time consists of periods and moments; place mere sectors and partialities; and all of them collapse into something inferior to both unity and genuine cognizance.

It is passages like this one that make A Muslim Suicide remarkable and characterize it as a work of fiction rather than a biography. Himmich manages to distill the essence of Ibn Sab‘in’s philosophy and imagine how it could have been produced by a living, breathing man.

Part of Bensalem Himmich’s success in this ambitious endeavor must be attributed to the fact that he himself is a philosopher. Full of allusions to scholars and political figures that influenced Ibn Sab‘in, this book represents not just his life but the intellectual climate of Sab‘in’s day. Himmich manages to strike a balance between making the novel accessible and upholding the complexity of thought and rhetoric one would expect of a narrator noted in the field of philosophy. I am reminded of the choice that translators make between bringing the source text closer to the reader and bringing the reader closer to the source text. In the process of translating the language and culture of Ibn Sab‘in’s era for a contemporary audience, Himmich chose to bring the reader closer to the source. This choice is appropriately reflected by Roger Allen’s translation into English. Unfamiliar as I am with Muslim Philosophy, I appreciated the addition of a glossary to provide background information.

A Muslim Suicide requires attentive reading, but it rewards with moments of ecstatic, poetic prose. In one of my favorite passages, Ibn Sab‘in addresses his followers:

I refuse to countenance the slightest degree of shirking or contempt. The reason is that the only genuine sense of relief I feel involves resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person and combatting those symmetries whose outmoded tyranny I can measure within the framework of ever-ascending and existential essentials of life. Beyond all that, my overriding task and indeed the very essence of my being involves turning my life into an incredible work of art, albeit incomplete – needless to say.

The notion of “resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person” encapsulates Ibn Sab‘in’s internal struggles throughout the book. From fighting the urge to give into the void he feels upon losing his manuscript, to working against the spread of Christian Spain, to running from murderous fanatics, to praying for unity with God in his final moments of fever-wrecked life, Ibn Sab‘in seeks always to combat that which would pull him into a forgettable, faithless existence. And that, needless to say, is life turned into art and a life worthy of a reader’s attention.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is joint review by Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah on Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus, which is translated from the Italian by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from McSweeney’s.

Here is an excerpt from their review:

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such.

Click here to read their entire review.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such. In the words of the narrator:

. . . we are ignorant of what scandal is, because we instinctively accept every possible deviation betrayed by those around us simply as an unexpected supplement to the protocol of normality. So, for example, when, in the darkness of the parish cinema, we felt the priest’s hand resting on the inside of our thigh, we weren’t angry but quickly deduced that evidently things were like that, priests put their hands there – it wasn’t something you needed to mention at home.

There’s a disturbingly dismissive tone in the narrator’s voice as he describes these deviant acts – these acts of molestation aren’t sinful or bad; rather, things are “like that,” and the boys simply accept it.

When the narrator’s best friend Luca first experiences a break with his childhood vision of the world, it is compared to traversing outside their homeland: “For the first time one of us pushed beyond the inherited borders, in the suspicion that there are no borders, in reality, no mother house untouched. . . From that land he looks at us, waiting for us to follow”. These “inherited borders,” once so immutable, quickly break down as the novel progresses. One by one, the four young men slip into the realm of tragedy – a world where priests molest children but also give the Eucharist, where mothers sleep with Confessors but also fiercely protect their young, where girlfriends will be virgins until they marry, yet submit to sexual touching under a blanket. But readers will struggle to link this shadowy world to the conventional notion of “sin.” The author presents us with a cast of morally mixed characters, whose deviant actions fail to receive the kind of denunciation you’d expect from an insular Catholic community.

Take, for example, “the Saint,” the most ostensibly pious of the four friends. He aims to join the priesthood, displaying a faith that’s beyond passionate in its dimensions: “That mother made us tell her that we prayed, while the Saint burned in prayer; and his legs had a way of kneeling that was like crashing, when we simply changed position—he fell to his knees”. The fervor with which the Saint prays is almost erotic – a quality that makes his faith appear close to his vice, like two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the narrator suggests that the Saint’s sinister tendencies are what propel his piety: “None of us have that sensitivity to evil, a kind of morbid, terrifying attraction – increasingly morbid, inevitably, because it is terrifying – as none of us have the same vocation as the Saint for goodness, sacrifice, meekness, which are the consequence of that terror”. Perversely, a disturbingly intimate familiarity with evil fuels the sanctity of characters like the Saint.

One of the more poignant elements of the novel was its meditation on faith. The Catholicism posited by this book, however, is hard to define – the priests try to teach the boys “that faith is a gift, which comes from on high and belongs to the world of mystery”. In other words, it is a holy and untouchable boon from God. Yet despite their respect for the Bible and their clergymen, the boys see their faith as derived from a different source: “From somewhere, and in an invisible way, our unhappy families passed on to us an immutable instinct to believe that life is an immense experience”. Conventional teachers of faith, such as priests, parents, or scriptures, lack the authority that you’d expect them to wield in this book; that power instead belongs to human instinct, which molds their particular religion and guides their actions. This frequently-iterated sense of humanism would seem to throw traditional Catholicism into question, an idea which is later echoed in the statement, “long before God, we believe in man – and this alone, in the beginning, is faith”. Faith isn’t a dry scripture or a fixed doctrine for the boys; it is something fluid, malleable, and organic, constantly remodeled to match the changing structure of their lives.

Emmaus is a painful and lyrical chronicle of adolescence, but the narrative voice is too cognizant, too reflective to belong to a young boy. The pensive tone implies a back-looking narrator, who possesses the objectivity and emotional detachment to explain to us, calmly and logically, the shock two boys experience when they find out that a parent is severely depressed:

. . . this gives an idea of how we’re made. We have a blind faith in our parents; what we see at home is the just, well-balanced way of things, the protocol of what we consider mental health. We adore our parents for that reason—they keep us sheltered from any anomaly. So the hypothesis doesn’t exist that they, first of all, can be an anomaly—an illness.

Yet what are we supposed to glean from the fact that the ostensibly adult narrator chooses to speak in the present tense whenever he comments on the general state of his adolescent life? Does he still have a blind faith in his parents, or is he merely inhabiting his youth linguistically as well as emotionally? This is another way in which Baricco complicates the simple architecture of a loss of innocence narrative; the voice of the boy, the adolescent, and the man are indistinguishable.

The narrator spends so much time grappling with philosophical and religious conundrums that we come to expect a reconciliation of these tensions, but this is in no way fulfilled. The book’s final pages are filled with just as much uncertainty as the middle. Finishing it feels like waking up from a dream, one full of would-be-contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense according to the logic of the dream. Upon waking, all that’s left is the disarming question of whether or not this logic can apply successfully in the real world.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Young, aka Sarah Two, on Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, which is translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from Grove Press.

This is Sarah Two’s first review for threepercent. Her introduction can be found here. Later this week, both Sarahs (Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah) will be featured in a review that they co-wrote.

Here is some of Sarah Two’s first independent review:

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

In the passages following the lawyer, the narrator strikes an almost satirical tone. The lawyer’s every action seems calculated to raise his esteem in the eyes of his family, peers, and even perfect strangers. Whenever a friendly rival upgrades his sports car, the lawyer must buy a new one that is even better; he keeps an office in an expensive Jewish neighborhood despite the fact that all his clients are Arab Israelis; when he goes to buy a book that embarrasses him, he asks the cashier to giftwrap it. Once a month he and his wife take part in a couples’ night, complete with overpriced sushi and post-dinner discussions of predetermined topics.

Yet just when you think the book could be a mockery of the lawyer for trying too hard to conform to Western culture, it careens off in another direction. When the lawyer irrationally concludes that his wife is unfaithful, he assumes a more convenient ideology to suit his rage:

Experience had taught him that he was a conservative. Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it. What an idiot an idiot he had been when he spoke out, time and again, against the treatment of women in the Arab World, saying that it was widespread misogyny that held these societies back.

His outbursts, while disturbing, seem less like genuine expressions of feeling and more like attempts to react the way that he thinks people in his situation should react. I appreciated the dark comedy in this half-instinctive/half-intellectual neurosis, particularly in small moments, such as the time the lawyer googles “why women cheat.”

There is less comedy present in the sections detailing the life of the social worker, in part because his first person narration provides fewer opportunities for satire. Unlike the lawyer, he does everything he can to fade away from notice, positive or negative. His ethnically ambiguous name and physical appearance, as well as his fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, allow him to slip between cultures and witness more of the ugly prejudices present in Israeli society. Van drivers rant to him about Zionist “collaborators”; Jewish university students joke to him about the “token Arabs” in their programs; modern Muslim Jerusalemites scorn conventional women that wear hijabs. It is no wonder that he feels embarrassed wherever he goes. In a crowded Jewish nightclub he expounds:

I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. . . the who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them… To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?

The last question of the passage comes across both as a genuine inquiry and an attempt by the narrator to justify his behavior. This ambivalence runs through the entire novel as the two men take great measures to feel comfortable within Jewish circles of the Jerusalem community, yet feel uncomfortable about having taken those measures. The implication seems to be that they lose something un-nameable – maybe even unrecognizable – in the process of assimilation. Still, it is unclear whether or not this ineffable sacrifice is worth grieving.

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