Islamic terror and the “war against terror”: Despite all the negativity inherent in both these constructs, they have led, indirectly, to at least one good in some (thinking) circles. Some writers—whether American, European or Asian—are again talking, with great seriousness of purpose, of what we share across cultures and religions. This is a necessary and long overdue development: one that has finally escaped the boundaries of academic research, where it had been largely confined until recently, and entered more popular genres, such as the debate book or the novel of ideas.
A World Without Islam by Graham E. Fuller is one such book. The title is brilliant in a deeply ironic manner, as it makes one expect a (predictable) rightist/chauvinist rant against Islam. What one gets is the exact opposite: a deeply considered book that examines, again and again, the social, historical and political grounds of today’s conflicts. The aim of the book is not to exonerate either Islam or the “West”, but to examine matters in context—and in the process explode such simplistic notions as the proclaimed hostility of “Islam” to (“Western”) modernity, the supposed violence of Islam, and the warped thesis of an inevitable clash of civilizations.
In India, two other recent books explore related territory. Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow’s Confluences: Forgotten Histories From East and West (which was reviewed in Lounge in February) and Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s The Monk, The Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun.
Hoskote and Trojanow write fluently and with passion. Their impressive trek across the centuries highlights how all cultures have borrowed from each other, and how our current “modernity” is by no means a European invention. They defamiliarize the given purist accounts of religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism just as much as they explore how non-Europe has penetrated Europe for centuries. They reveal how Europe also owes its “modernity” and “rational” traditions to non-Europe, particularly Muslim and Jewish Arabs and Moors.
Scholar: Graham E. Fuller, author of A World Without Islam. Little, Brown/Bloomberg
What Hoskote and Trojanow do in non-fiction prose, Mirza does as fiction in The Monk, The Moor & Moses Ben Jalloun. Mirza’s novel is less “pure” fiction (whatever that might be!) and more an attempt to use fiction to narrate a half-forgotten history and fill in some blanks.
It is always difficult to find books brought out by smaller houses, and then there is the danger that the books will disappoint. But I still try and read outside the usual highways of publishing, and every once in a while I find my effort rewarded: I discover an interesting book that would have escaped my notice otherwise.
Osama by Lavie Tidhar, published by the small but cult house PS Publishing (UK), is one such novel. In a world without global terrorism, Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find the author of some obscure pulp novels that feature a seemingly fictitious “vigilante” called Osama bin Laden. As Joe delves into the case, and is sucked deeper into it, he discovers truths about the world that leave him facing a decisive choice atop a hill in Kabul. With echoes of Thomas Auster and Paul Pynchon, film noir and alternative history, this is a fascinating novel by an Israeli writer I will want to read again.
God’s Own Untouchable by Ulahannan Thoppil, published by Vitasta in India, is also interesting and worth reading. When Aaron Micah is elevated to a bishop and his origin traced to the Pulaya (untouchable) community, it brings to the surface the tensions of casteism among Syrian Christians in Kerala. It is in unravelling these tensions and its ironies that this novel assumes force.
The Puffin Book of Magic Stories for 8-Year-Olds, with delightful stories by friends and colleagues such as Padmini Mongia and Sébastien Doubinsky, had me smiling all evening. Excellent new stories for children and those parents who like reading aloud to their children.
Tabish Khair’s new novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position, will be released by HarperCollins in India later in April.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org