Robert Gottlieb on his career as an editor and publisher, and a life spent among many of America's greatest writers.
The countries of the Middle East stretch from Morocco to Iran and from Turkey to Pakistan. They speak different languages, practice different faiths and possess different cultures. But all have been shaped in the past hundred years by a common experience of western imperialism and the scars left by a legacy of foreign rule. To many Americans, the region is thought of as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. Writer and religious scholar Reza Aslan offers a different window to the struggles and conflicts of the middle east through the words of the region’s poets and writers, many translated for the first time in a new anthology.
- Reza Aslan author of "No god but God" and How to Win a Cosmic War"
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. The Middle East is a diverse region with a rich literary history, but many readers of English have never heard of its most acclaimed modern poets and writers. A new Words Without Borders anthology titled "Tablet and Pen" translates many works from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu into English for the first time. Writer Reza Aslan edited the volume with a team of three regional editors and 77 translators. He joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. REZA ASLANThank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll free number 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always find us on Twitter and Facebook. So why did you think it was important to do this book?
ASLANWell, you know, usually when Americans think about the Middle East, they tend to look at it through the lens of either religion or politics and what I wanted to do was provide a different window of looking at this incredibly diverse, incredibly eclectic region, a window that I think is more important to the people of the region than just the issues of religion or the issues of politics. And that is through its arts. In this case, of course, it's literature, but also, it's music, it's film, it's art. You know, these are the universal languages that we have available to us to really get to know each other and particularly in this day and age in which perceptions of that region and perceptions of Islam in general are at unprecedentedly low levels in the United States.
ASLANI thought that the best way to kind of breakthrough that veil of otherness that has really been put upon Muslims and been put upon the Middle East is by looking at its literature, looking at its arts by breaking down the walls and the barriers that separate us and really getting to know the people of this region as human beings, instead of as symbols of Islam or symbols of a particular political ideal.
PAGENow, this book is an anthology that's part of Words Without Borders. What is that?
ASLANWords Without Borders is a remarkable organization that I'm very proud to serve on the board of. What we do is we take literature from all over the planet in every language you can possibly imagine. We purchase the rights to that literature. We translate that literature both fiction, nonfiction as well as poetry and then we put it on the website, wordswithoutborders.org, for all English speakers all over the world to read for free.
ASLANAnd then we also provide services in which we provide those poems and those works of fiction and nonfiction to high school kids around the country. You know, we keep talking about the importance of being globalized citizens, citizens of the world these days, but I think that we don't really understand what that means. To truly be a citizen of the world, you need to know the other and I think that anyone who has spent a moment thinking about not just the Middle East, but the wider world as we know it, will tell you that the best way to know each other is through literature. It's through the poems and the stories that people write because that is the perfect window into the soul.
PAGENow, you dedicate -- tell us about -- you use -- you have a poem at the beginning of your book that is part of the dedication. This book is dedicated to the people of Iran. Why did you choose that?
ASLANYeah, thank you for that. I've spent two years putting this book together. It was a real labor of love and I do want to emphasize that all of the proceeds from the book go to support Words Without Borders. I don't see a penny of the money from this book and so as a result, when I was really working on this, this was at the height of the demonstrations and the protests in Iran, the so-called Green Revolution, that captured the imaginations of so many people around the world. And if anything, at the very least, gave Americans this important knowledge that when it comes to this region, not just Iran, but when it comes to most of the Middle East, there is a real difference between the region's leaders and the region's people.
ASLANAnd Iran was sort of the most obvious representation of that. When we saw, you know, millions of Iranians standing up to their own government and wanting to have, you know, a greater say in the future of their country. So it was really exciting as I'm putting this book of literature together that all of this was happening, so I made the decision to dedicate the book itself to the people of Iran and to their continuing struggle.
PAGEAnd so would you read the poem for us, please?
ASLANYes. This is a poem called "Blue, Gray, Black" by a poet, an Iranian poet, named Hamed Mosadegh. "Whoever keeps you and me from being we, let his house cave in. If I don't become we, I'm alone. If you don’t become we, you are just you. Why not make the East arise again? Why not force open the hands of the vile? If I rise, if you arise, everyone will be roused. If I sit, if you take a seat, who will take a stand? Who will fight the foe, grapple the foul enemy hand to hand?"
ASLANThis was a really important poem because of course one of the things that was really magical about what happened in Iran is that it wasn't just an Iranian movement, it was a global movement. All around the world, you had demonstrations of people, Iranian and non-Iranian also, coming out into the street sharing their support for the plight of the Iranian people as they kept struggling for their freedom.
PAGEThis poem translated from the Persian -- of course, there are challenges when you translate from any language into another, even from say, French to English related languages. Are there special challenges when you're translating into English from Persian or Urdu?
ASLANYes, mostly definitely. You know, the thing about a language like say Persian is that it's such a flowery language. The grammar of the language is quite different. So for instance, in Persian, the verb in a sentence is always the last word in a sentence and that allows poets to do some really fun and fancy wordplay, you know, in the way that they put a sentence together. You can put subject, object, noun wherever you want to as long as the last word is the verb.
ASLANIt also allows for some interesting rhymes and so when it comes to translating that into English, it was very important for us to get not just professional translators, but to get poets to do so. So for instance, that particular poem that I just read was translated by a brilliant Iranian-American poet by the name of Sholeh Wolpe, herself a wonderful poet, but also a real expert on translating the poetic form from Persian into English while maintaining the magic of the original language.
PAGENow, many of the writers represented in "Tablet and Pen" are living. What kind of reaction have you gotten from them?
ASLANWell, it's really interesting. So the book starts with 1910. It goes 1910 to 2010 and it is divided into three sections. The first section is 1910 to 1950 and it's really about the struggle to form identity and to use language in particular as a means of creating a firm national identity that can push back against colonialism and against Western imperialism. The second part of the book is kind of an ironic part of the book in that these great writers and poets whose words really form the intellectual foundation for the independence and freedom movements that gave birth to what we now know as the modern Middle East very quickly realized that the state that they gave birth to was just as bad, if not worse, than, you know, what life was life under the colonialists.
ASLANAnd indeed, they very quickly became the enemies of the states that they help found. The third part of the book is sort of the globalized section of the book and that section was really interesting because many of the works in the third section have never been published before and some of them were very difficult to find. So for instance, the last poem in the book was one by an Iranian poet named Alireza Behnam. Now, Alireza is a very young man. He is a poet living in Iran barely eking out a living.
ASLANMany of his poems are quite political and so he has a very small audience in Iran, very hard for him to get published, very hard for him to make a living. It's hard for any poet to make a living, but it's especially difficult, I guess, if you're in Iran and you're writing political poems, but Alireza Behnam was smart enough to put his poems on the internet, which is where I found them. And I got them. I had them translated and I put them into this book. And what was amazing was a few months ago, he actually found out about this and e-mailed me and was so amazed that this young poet struggling to eke out a living and get his poems read in his home country will now be read by thousands and 10s of thousands of Americans.
ASLANAnd this poem is called "Hanging from the Trees of Babylon." "At the end, I'll come down in my thousand years form hanging from the towers of Chiganzabil (sp?) and there is something within me that throws language to the battlements of the tower. You will praise me, that's clear in the form of an old man hanging from the trees of Babylon. Athens will rise within me and Paris and Persepolis and many, many languages. Cut me to pieces, every piece will come as a word and will come as a word and will encircle your eyes.
ASLANHurray is within me and rising from the language beyond Pluto and Artemis' herd and rebellion of disobedient words. The whole are within me and I in my thousand years form will be thrown from the virgins painted on temple walls to the shadows emerging from your computer and being thrown is within me. Ask me, ask me about the future. I'll reply in Babylon."
PAGEAnd why did you choose to close your anthology with this particular poem?
ASLANWell, I think because on the one hand, it's a poem of great frustration. It's a poem about a man whose thoughts, whose words, whose ideas are curtailed by his society and he feels as though the role of the poet and this is true for almost every writer in this book is to hold a mirror up to society. This is a region of the world, as you know, that doesn't have freedom of speech, doesn't have freedom of the press, so it's the poets and the writers who become the critics of society. And also, it has that sense of future, a sense of hope in what's coming.
PAGEWe're talking about the anthology "Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Reza Aslan, he's a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and the author of "No god But God" and "Beyond Fundamentalist." He's the editor of a new anthology of modern Middle East writing called "Tablet and Pen." We've got a lot of callers. Let's go to the phones and talk first to Joslyn, who's calling us from Little Rock, Ark. Hi, welcome to the show.
JOSLYNHi, thank you. I was wondering, when you're taking these poems and translating them and putting them back into a poetic form, is what you wind up with actually a new poem or is it still maintaining the essence of the original one?
ASLANThat's a very good question, Joslyn. Actually, you know, an argument could be made that what you are really doing is creating something anew, which is why as I said, it's very important for us to make sure that we don't just have professional translators doing the translations. Not just of the poems, but also of the prose pieces, but instead that we have writers and poets working on these translations so that we maintain their poetic quality. But I think you're absolutely right. I mean, the very process of translating these works really creates something wholly new. Just as wonderful, though.
PAGEAnd here's another e-mailer asks something that's related. "Please comment on the task and importance of the translator to convey the aesthetic and cultural nuance of an original work."
ASLANWell, this is what was amazing about having the resources of Words Without Borders at my disposal, is that you mentioned, there are 77 translators who worked on this book, which is remarkable. And all of those translators get, you know, their due credit because we really do believe that they're very much a part of the creative process in putting the book together. And so, you know, in some ways, this book is as much a celebration of these really titans of global literature that sadly, unfortunately, do not get a lot of attention in the English-speaking world, but it's also a celebration of the translator and translation as an enterprise.
PAGENow, Lynn from Potomac, Md. sends us an e-mail asking, "Why were no poets from Israel included in the collection? Israel is an integral part of the region."
ASLANVery good question. So the collection started in 1910, of course, and really until about the 1950s, the locus of Hebrew literature was not to be found in the Middle East, was actually to be found in Europe and in Russia. One of the rules that we had about this book is that all of the work had to be written, not just in a Middle Eastern language, but it had to be written while the author was himself or herself in the Middle East.
ASLANBy the 1950s or so, where we're about halfway through the book now, when the locus of Hebrew literature does begin to slowly shift into Israel and you get some of these really beautiful profound moving pieces of Hebrew literature, by then, the vast majority of the literature tends to be focused on either the sort of Jewish historical destiny or the Israeli historical destiny.
ASLANAnd as such, really does not fit into the same themes that are so prevalent throughout this book, the themes of anti-colonialism or western imperialism, the struggle to form a national identity. Those are things that Hebrew literature -- and of course, I give in the book a number of examples of absolutely wonderful collections of both Hebrew literature and Israeli literature translated into English. Those are things that it just didn't fit into the overall narrative arc of the book.
PAGEYou talk about the narrative arc and I think it's unusual in an anthology to think there is a narrative arc because, of course, with anthology, sometimes you'll -- the ways you read some anthologies is to pick it up and open it to whatever page and sample whatever is on that page. But you say this is not really the way you intend this anthology to be read.
ASLANYeah, that's right, Susan. In fact, that was always my biggest complaint when I was thinking about putting this book together, is I thought no one actually reads an anthology. You just sort of pick it up and flip through it and look at it a little bit and read whatever you like and put it back down again. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to put together an anthology that you read from beginning to end as though it's one single sustained narrative.
ASLANAnd the way that I did that was by reading hundreds and hundreds of works, really starting in 1910 and realizing that what was coming out was this sort of grand narrative about the region. Really, the way I think about this book is as a new kind of history book. You've read history books about the Middle East. They're often written by outsiders or academics. This is a history book about the last hundred years of the Middle East, except that it's written through the words of the region's greatest poets and writers.
ASLANAnd it really is meant -- and I go throughout the book and add little, you know, historical data and context so that you do read it as one sustained book. And when you read it from first page to last page, what you come up with at the end is a real understanding of the struggles of this region and the people in all their diversity, the way that they share a certain historical consciousness with one another. And that's, I think, the thing that I’m most proud of is that a lot of people have read this book from first page to last. And they say it reads like a novel. It reads like one sustained book.
PAGEIt must -- it sounds like such an enormous task to distill so much literature into this kind of anthology. And I wonder, how did you go about identifying the authors you wanted to read, reading them? How did that work?
ASLANWell, I got a lot of help at first. You had mentioned that there were regional editors involved in this and I had a regional editor help me, Shirley Wolpay (sp?) with the Persian works, Michael Beard helped with the Arabic works, Zinnot Ziad (sp?), a D.C. resident helped with the Urdu works. And what they did is they just sent me thousands and thousands of stories and poems and essays and I just spent a year reading, just reading and reading and reading and reading and then also collecting my own works in there, too. And as I read, that's when the sort of story came up.
ASLANI didn't come to the work with a narrative arc already in hand. I came to the work very open. And as I read these works, as I read these poems and short stories, I realized that an overarching story about the region was being told. And then at that point, it was just a matter of shaping it and giving substance to it. I kind of tried to stay out of the way as much as possible.
PAGENow, some of the authors you include are not from that region or the countries we think of as traditionally part of the Middle East, from Turkey, from South Asia. Why did you include these writers?
ASLANYes. In fact, you know, a lot of people would say, wait a second, Turkey. Turkey is not really the Middle East. And some people have said, well, you can't really count Pakistan as the Middle East. That's absolutely true. I mean, let's bear in mind that the very term the Middle East was a term invented by Europeans in order to just kind of more easily parcel out, divvy up, you know, this land between Asia and Europe amongst the colonial conquerors. The term itself is kind of meaningless because the truth is, is that what do the countries of the Middle East actually have in common with each other? Not culture, not language, not ethnicity, not even religion.
ASLANSo what I did is I kind of took advantage of that sort of outsider's sense of this region. In fact, I even talk about the very term that was used by these conquerors in the 19th and early 20th century, which was the orient, right. This Middle East area was referred to simply as the orient. And as the great cultural critic Edward Said once said, you know, when you -- when Europeans said orient or orientalism, they weren't making a geographic designation. They were making a moral designation, a cultural designation, even a civilizational one. Edward Said had this very famous quote where he said, One could speak in Europe of an oriental personality, an oriental atmosphere, an oriental tale, oriental despotism or an oriental mode of production and be understood.
ASLANIn other words, for many westerners, the orient, like the Middle East today, simply means that which is not us, that which is not the west. And so rather than fight that view, I absorb that view and added Turkey and South Asia to the mix because while they have different cultures, they have different languages, as I say, different religions, they do share a common bond of sort of, you know, a struggle for national identity. An attempt to ward off western imperialism and to create an indigenous political and social order, a shared historical consciousness over the last 100 years that really binds these people as one.
PAGEYour family immigrated from Iran when you were young.
PAGEDo you read Persian?
ASLANI do, I do.
PAGEAnd are these languages that are involved in this book in the original, do you read other of the original languages?
ASLANYes. And I read Persian and Arabic. My Urdu is terrible and my Turkish is nonexistent (laugh).
PAGEAnd did you try to read these works in the original or were you reading them entirely in English? How did you proceed?
ASLANWell, some of these works, about 20 percent of the works in this book, 20 to 25 percent, had never been translated into English before. Many of the works that were translated into English we were not happy with, so we retranslated them into English. But yes, it's true, a lot of the works that had never been translated before I had to find in their original language. And it was a real struggle because although I can read them, you know, I have, you know, competency in these languages and by no means a scholar of Persian or Arabic.
ASLANBut at the same time, I was really helped by the people behind me, you know, who were able to help me to find, you know, these works that, you know, people hadn't heard of before, hadn't been translated before and were in a much better place than I am to figure out, you know, what their quality was.
PAGELet's go back to the phones and let some of our listeners pose their own questions, make their own comments. Mark is calling us from Jacksonville, Fla. Mark, thank you for joining us.
MARKThank you very much. And what a compelling subject and guest that you have. My question is, are any of these writers and poets that you selected, are they facing any negative consequence from, let's say, their governments that might not be appreciative of their works appearing in a western media format?
PAGEMark, thanks for your call.
ASLANMark, that's a great question and I'm embarrassed to say, I actually haven't thought about that yet. The book's been out for a week and I will be very curious to find out if that's the case. You know, as I mentioned before, many of these writers, the vast majority of these writers, are really, you know, considered pariahs by their own states because they are in an interesting position in which they are really the only legitimate social critiques in some parts of the Middle East. This is certainly true when it comes to, you know, countries like Egypt and Iran. But even in Turkey, the great Orhan Pamuk, who is in this book, has been in constant trouble with the Turkish government for the things that he's written.
ASLANSo, you know, these are writers and poets who are used to being the subject of persecution and oppression by their states, by their religious and their political leaders. But I'll be curious to find out if they're going to get, you know, even more attention now that Americans are reading them. Thanks for that.
PAGEAnd one of the threads that you see are authors writing of their experience in prison. How common was the prison experience for your authors?
ASLANIt's incredibly common, unfortunately. You know, one of the earliest poems in here by the great Nazim Hikmet, who is perhaps one of Turkey's greatest poets ever of all time. And whose words and whose ideas really gave shape to a Turkish identity, allowed for, you know, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey. But of course, as soon as the modern Republic of Turkey was founded, Nazim Hikmet became public enemy number one.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, in fact, he wrote a poem you've included, "I Love My Country," on page 56. Tell us something about this poem. Perhaps you'd read just a bit of it for us.
ASLANYeah, so Nazim Hikmet spent 10 years in a Turkish prison where, you know, he was forbidden to do any writing. I think he wasn't even a allowed to have a pen and paper. And during those 10 years, he just continued to create these poems in his head that have become some of the greatest poetries of all time. The poem that you're talking about, "I Love My Country," I think is a -- starts with a beautiful line. He says, "I love my country. I have swung on its plain trees, I have stayed in its prisons."
ASLANAnother famous poem that he has in here is called "Since I Was Thrown Inside." And it talks about the 10 years that he spent in prison and what it did for him. And I'll just read one quick stanza of this, the last stanza of this poem. "Since I was thrown inside, the earth has orbited the sun 10 times. And just as passionately, I repeat what I wrote the year I was thrown inside. The people who are plentiful as ants on the ground, as fish in the sea, as birds in the sky, who are cowardly, courageous, ignorant, supreme and childlike, it is they who crush and create. It is but their exploits sung in songs. And as for the rest, my tenure incarceration for instance, it's all meaningless words."
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk now to David who's been holding on. David, hi, you're on the air. He's calling us from Louisville, Ky.
DAVIDHi, good day and thank you for having me on.
PAGEYes, please go ahead.
DAVIDIt's a great topic and an important topic about culture, I think. I hear you're trying to stay away from religion, you're trying to stay away from politics, even though I'm sure a lot of the poetry is, you know, individuals trying to become individuals despite of the politics. But my question is do you have an example or stories that show the culture, the traditions? Do you have your favorite maybe of what is the cultural meaning that we can get from this?
ASLANWell, that's a really great question and, you know, the one thing that I think is important to understand is that you can't just simply ignore religion and politics in this region. Politics, of course, is a part of every aspect of the human life in these kinds of conflict prone regions. And certainly religion is ever present.
ASLANNow, I do want to emphasize that this is not a collection of writings from the Muslim world for two reasons. One, because there is no such thing as the Muslim world. The Muslim world is one and a half billion people scattered all over the planet. And two, because although many of these writers are Muslim, though not all of them -- there are Christian writers, there are Jewish writers here, though many of them are Muslim, they don't really identify themselves as Muslim writers. Not anymore than, say, Philip Roth would identify himself as a Jewish writer.
ASLANBut you're right about this notion that culture is constantly in here and it's a part of the real sort of, I think, the draw of this book. So I'm thinking of a poet by the name of Zakaria Tamer, a Syrian poet who wrote in the 1960s. Now, you have to remember the 1960s was a very interesting time in the Arab world because, of course, everything was about Israel, Israel, Israel. And when Israel defeated Syria, Jordan and Egypt really in a very powerful and embarrassing way, a lot of the Arabs in the region were sort of looking for some answer to that. And it was the poets that came up with the answer. And I'll read a little bit when we come back from this break.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Reza Aslan about his new Anthology "Tablet and Pen." We'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850 and read your e-mails, email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking with Reza Aslan of the University of California at Riverside about the new anthology that he's edited called "Table and Pen." Now, our last caller said that he knew you were trying to stay away from politics and religion. Is that true? Were you trying in this anthology to -- to stay away from politics and religion?
ASLANNot stay away, just sort of reframe our perceptions and to refocus on -- on something that I think is more revolutory about the people of this world than politics and religion. And the best example I can think of is the example I was talking about before from a poem by Zakaria Tamer. Now, this was in the late 1960s after the '67 six-day war between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. That was an absolutely devastating, embarrassing defeat for these Arab nations. At the end of the war, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem the Golan Heights. I mean, it was about as humiliating a defeat as could possibly be achieved.
ASLANAnd of course, it was a real blow to Arab nationalism. And yet, this sort of political and religious machine in the region went into overdrive, to kind of explain it, and in a, you know, country in which you don't have, you know, actual press freedoms, it -- it was up to the poets, of course, to tell the truth. And here is a poem by Zakaria Tamer called "The Enemies," and I'll just read one stanza from it.
ASLAN"A medal for our savior. The Arabic language has been awarded the highest declaration in our homeland for the way in which it took part in the transformation of a military defeat into a victory. It managed to turn the war a withdrawal. The withdrawal then became steadfast resistance. Steadfast resistance turned into bravery and bravery was called victory. We have defeated the enemy and will be able to defeat their fifth column, too, which seems to be the only element not to appreciate the fighting qualities of the Arabic language." So you can see why these guys very quickly became the troublemakers of the states and Zakaria Tamer was no exception to that.
PAGEDid you have -- did your writers included in this anthology deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?
ASLANVery much so. In fact, the middle section is really interesting, particularly the Persian writers. Many of these Iranian writers, from Achmed Shamlu (sp?) to Jalall Aliachmed (sp?), really were the driving force for the revolution in 1979 that brought down the Shah. They provided not just the intellectual framework, but really, they provided the language of freedom and democracy and liberty and anti-imperialism that created the groundswell that ultimately deposed the Shah. Of course, what happened after the Shah is that the religious establishment, the Clerical establishment under Ayatollah Khomeini was able to step into the vacuum and take over the country and create what we now know as the Islamic Republic.
ASLANSo in a sense, those same writers who were tortured and murdered by the Shah's regime, the ones who actually made it past the revolution and got to see their words, their ideas come to fruition with the downfall of the dictator, the Shah, were all of a sudden put into a position where they immediately were targeted by the new state, the new Islamic Republic, for their nationalist ideas. They weren't -- they weren't properly religious and many of them fled, many of them were imprisoned and tortured and many were murdered by the Islamic Republic.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Marilyn calling us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Marilyn, thanks for holding on.
MARILYNHi, I just wanted to -- you know, I wanted to show my appreciation for the teacher as a -- because he read the poem without that usual cadence, which I don't know why they use reading poems, that kind of droning thing.
MARILYNI loved it and that told, too, that "Babylon Thousand Years" poem was just so empowering, I just felt personally and even though in this country we have the freedom to say what we want, it's not always -- it's not always free because so many people are babbling that the voice doesn't really come through. And then the final thing -- I mean, besides, actually, maybe you could answer that, why do people use that horrible cadence. But the other thing is I wanted to recommend a move called "The 13th Warrior" that I found really enlightening about, you know, the – the way of the Arab world versus the way of the Northern European world 1,000 years ago or whenever it was, that they were actually so much more civilized. So that's...
ASLANAnd Marilyn, you bring up something really important there and that is what I alluded to at the beginning of the show, which was the power of the arts. You know, the way that we can know about each other, not through the media and not, unfortunately, always through books or through history, but through literature, through film, through music, through the arts. I mean, this is how we get to understand each other's cultures, what really matters to other nations and other peoples instead of what we are told by the media, which is, it's all about religion, it's all about politics.
PAGENow, what about Marilyn's point about the kind of traditional poetry cadence that you did not use, to her (word?).
ASLANWell, you know, I actually say, I'm kind of grateful for Marilyn noticing because I take reading of poetry very, very seriously and it's something that a lot of brilliant, wonderful poet friends who couldn't read their own poems if their life depended on it and it always sort of bothers me. I'm with Marilyn. I have the same sort of bother that I get when people read poetry incorrectly (laugh).
PAGELet's talk to Jacob, he's calling us from Oklahoma City, Okla. Jacob, hi.
JACOBHi. Thank you for having me on. My question had to do with funds. Obviously, you're selling the book and you had mentioned earlier that you bought some of the rights to these poems, but then you said the young man in Iran who had that beautiful "Babylon" poem didn't find out until after you guys were publishing it. Did he get some sort of financial benefit, since he's already struggling?
ASLANThat's a very good question. So Words Without Borders is a not for profit group. We don't have a lot of money, but we have a little bit of money and the money that we use, we use in order to buy the rights of works from all over the world so that we can translate them. But one thing that a lot of people don't really understand is that authors don't usually own their own rights, publishers own their rights. So when we wanna buy, for instance, a poem by Ali Rezabakman (sp?), we don't get in touch with him, we get in touch with, you know, whoever the editor or the publisher happens to be and we pay them for the right to translate and to republish the works.
ASLANSo yes, they all -- they all of course receive -- or whoever owns the rights, it's not often the writer. But whoever owns the rights does get the money for it. And then as far as the book goes, the sales from this book, all of the money, goes right back into Words Without Borders to help us continue doing what we're doing.
PAGEJacob, thanks very much for your call. Here's an e-mail from Mohammad in Fairfax, Va. who writes, "Is the number of American universities offering courses on literature and culture of the Muslim world still declining?" And a related e-mail from Irene who writes us, "How do you think that American schools can be persuaded to integrate more Islamic literature into the curriculum?" Why don't you talk first about this situation. Is there in fact a decline or an increase in exposure by American students in high school, in college to this sort of literature?
ASLANWell, what's interesting is that after September 11, there was an absolute boom in American universities for courses and degrees in Arabic or Islamic studies. And so that you can still see everywhere and there are people who are still hiring. It's a -- it's a real sort of dynamic academic discipline in most universities across this country. However, as I was saying before, most of the focus of these universities, when it comes to the study of the Middle East, is the study of either the religion of the Middle East or religions, I should say, of the Middle East or the study of the politics of the Middle East.
ASLANNow, these are important things, obviously, nowadays more than ever. And it's great that university students are being exposed to these subjects. But what they are not being exposed to is, I think, something that's even more important and that is the literature of this region. And that's one of the major reasons why Norton decided to publish this book. It's had a remarkable career so far. I mean, it's been selling very, very well in the popular audience. But ultimately, what we would like to do is use this book to create whole new courses in universities across the United States in Middle Eastern literature.
ASLANIn fact, one of the sort of the proudest moments that I've had so far since the book has been published is a review in The Library Journal that said that the book in it of itself is an entire course on Middle Eastern literature. I just hope that it will be adopted by universities and really taken seriously because again, I know I've said this a few times, but it can't be said enough. This is the window to truly understanding the peoples and cultures of this region, not religion, not politics, but literature and the arts. That's how we know one another.
PAGELet's talk to Rosa. She's calling us from Kansas City. Hi, Rosa.
PAGEDid you have a question or a comment?
ROSAYes. First of all, I wanted to let you know that I love Diane Rehm's show. This is one of the best shows to me. I listen to it every day. And also, I want to appreciate Reza and tell you I'm so proud of you to write this book. I think we really were due -- past due for the kind of book that you wrote. I hope you keep doing what you're doing and develop it and that you get more experience, you know, at it. I think this is one of the best gifts for the Christmas. I'm going to give it to all of my American and foreign friends. Thank you.
PAGEAnd Rezi, sounds like you have just a little bit of an accent yourself. Where are you from originally?
ROSAI'm from Iran and I migrated about 32 years ago.
PAGEAll right. Well...
ROSATo the United States. And I'm so proud of you because when I learn another language years ago, I started learning more literature and poetry and I fell in love with that country and that literature. And I think that you're right. The more we learn about each other through poetry and literature, we will change our attitude towards each other. And I think that is one of the best way to know each other, not through some of the media that they make so much negative things about others.
PAGEAll right, Rosa. Thanks very much for your call.
ASLANThank you, Rosa, I really appreciate that. One thing that was really beautiful, as a few days -- Thursday, last Thursday, I read at Politics and Prose lots of people came here. it's one -- it's one of the best bookstores here in the country here in D.C. and I had this elderly gentleman from Pakistan come up to me and say with tears in his eyes, these are the poems and the short stories that he read in Urdu when he was young. And he's been in this country for 30 years, his children were born in this country. They don't speak Urdu, they don't read Urdu and the idea that his children could now read the same poems and stories that he grew up with, but in their own language, was such a gift to him.
ASLANAnd I really appreciate that. And, you know, the Middle Eastern community in the United States is strong, it's vibrant, it's wealthy, it's integrated, but, you know, the second generation, the complaint you get a lot is that they just don't really know that much about their home countries anymore and hopefully this book will do something to change that.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail we got from Keith who writes us from Ann Arbor, Mich. He says, "As admirable as the efforts of this book are, isn't it preaching to the choir? Isn’t it true that the type of people who read this literature are already aware of the diversity of the Middle East. The people who have bad attitudes about the Middle East tend not to be readers of literature of their own culture. Will a book like this really change anyone's mind?"
ASLANYeah, in fact, someone once said, in a humorous way, you know, you can't even get Americans to read poems in English. How (laugh) are you gonna get them to read Arabic and Persian poems? On the one hand, I think that, you know, Keith is right. You know, there is -- there is a particular audience for this. On the other hand, there is an audience that doesn’t sort of read history books, that doesn't read books about religion or politics that perhaps, you know, the only thing that they know about this region is what they see in the median and -- but who nevertheless are great avid readers and who really want a different avenue for understanding this complex region. And I think this is a great avenue for that.
ASLANBut there's a reason I keep saying over and over again the arts, because I'm including in that film and television and music. These are important avenues that really help us to kind of break down the stereotypes and the walls that separate us. You know, I once heard the statistic once, I'm not sure if it's true, but I was told that before the movie "Gandhi" came out, less than 20 percent of Americans knew who Gandhi was. And now today, of course, Gandhi sells Apple computers. Why? Was it a book that changed people's minds, was it something in the media that gave people the sense of who this man was and what he stood for? Not. It was a movie and I think that's the important thing. So I'm focused on all the arts right now, but certainly, I think literature's an important tool.
PAGEWhere did you get the title of the anthology?
ASLANThe title comes from the poem that starts the book by the great Pakistani poet, Faraz Ahmad Faraz. Where he says that all he needs is a tablet and pen. So I'll read just the first lines of this poem, "I shall not -- I shall not cease to feed this pen, but still keep record of what things pass through the soul, still gather means for love to work its will, keep green this age around which blank deserts roll. Let others live for calm, indifferent peace, I listen to Earth's pangs and will not cease."
PAGEWhat a beautiful -- what a beautiful poem. Do you have a favorite in this book?
ASLANI -- I have so many favorites in this book, but, you know, one of my favorites is -- there's a poem here by the great Arab poet who's simply known by one name, Adonis. And it's a poem called "Grave for New York" and it's written for Walt Whitman, which was Adonis' real sort of hero. And I'll just read very quickly the first lines of this.
ASLAN"Until now, the earth has been depicted in the shape of a pear, by which I mean a breast, yet the difference between breast and tomb is a mere technicality. New York, a four-legged civilization. In every direction is murder or a road to murder and in the distance are the moans of the drowned."
PAGEAnd we've been talking this hour with Reza Aslan who's put together this new anthology "Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East." Thanks so much for being with us this hour.
ASLANThank you, Susan. Thank you for having me.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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