Writers Offer Alternate Lens On Modern Middle East
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Institute. News from the Middle East often focuses on problems: violence in Syria; political infighting in Egypt; bombs in the new Iraq; nuclear facilities in Iran; ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
Politics and war have shaped and reshaped the Middle East, from the Iranian revolution to the Arab Spring. But while newscasts can tell us a little bit about what's happening to states and movements, we learn about the people behind those headlines in stories and poems, in books by scholars and journalists and in the humor that skewers authority or humanizes people we might think of as strangers.
What have you learned about the Middle East from books and stories and jokes? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And we'd also like to thank everybody for joining us here at the Paepcke Auditorium. We'll be taking your questions, as well. Thanks very much for coming in today.
CONAN: Later in the program, between the president's announced on immigration policy and yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, something's changed. Writer Luis Alberto Urrea on stories of immigrants.
But we begin with humorist Firoozeh Dumas and novelist Assaf Gavron and writer and scholar Reza Aslan, all here with us at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen, and thanks to you all for coming in and joining us today.
FIROOZEH DUMAS: Thanks for having us.
CONAN: And Firoozeh Dumas, begin: Happy birthday.
DUMAS: Thank you.
CONAN: We talk about the kinds of stories that have changed politics and fates in the Middle East. We heard a cut of tape at the beginning of the program where you're saying 9/11, you started writing stories, stories about your family.
DUMAS: Absolutely. In all the years I've lived in America, I felt like it's such a surprise when people find out that there's so much humor in my family because whenever you see a Middle Easterner on television, or you hear about one, they're generally scary. And I felt like it's this little secret that we - a lot of us are really funny and likeable.
CONAN: And why did you start - when you started writing those stories, are they about political events or about your family?
DUMAS: Not at all. I write entirely about my family, and I have a very big family. So this could be like a 13-volume set. I just wrote about very simple things that I've experienced as an immigrant and the way Americans were. We came here in 1972, when - well, we actually landed in Whittier, California, which your listeners may know is the home of Richard Nixon.
And most of the people we met had never heard of Iran, and all we experienced was kindness and generosity from Americans. And a lot of the reason why I write isn't just so much about writing about myself, but I like to remind people about what America was like, that we don't really need to hate one another, that it doesn't make us any safer.
CONAN: Let's introduce Reza Aslan, who edited the anthology of Middle Eastern literature called "Tablet and Pen," also the author of "No god, but God: Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." I'm sure that was just filled with jokes.
REZA ASLAN: Oh yeah, it's just one big humoristic look at the Prophet Mohammed. No, no, not really, please don't send me emails.
CONAN: The idea, though, that we learn so much about the Middle East not just from the stories in the newspapers but from books and poetry in particular.
ASLAN: Yeah, it's funny because we have this tendency to think of this region as, you know, obsessed with religion and politics, but the truth is that the people of the region, whether Arabs or Israelis or Persians or Turks or South Asians, have all grown up in cultures that are steeped in literature and the arts.
I mean, in Iran, you know, Iranians, they pepper their conversations with the butcher with the little bits of (foreign language spoken). They define themselves by the arts and cultures of their culture. A friend of mine went to Iran not too long ago, and he came back, and the thing that he was most struck by, he said that, you know, when you go to Washington, D.C., or whatever, all the statues are of soldiers and politicians. When you go to Iran, all the statues are of poets and writers.
CONAN: And in Tahrir Square, some of the chants we heard, this, what, about 18 months ago, these are snatches of poetry.
ASLAN: Well, if you think about it, this is a region of the world in which there is really no such thing as a freedom of the press, where your voice is often stifled. And in those parts of the world where that's the case, the writer becomes the journalist, the historian, the social critic, the mirror that is held up on society to show its failures.
And certainly during the Arab Spring, you know, what was remarkable about it is that those young kids who were in Tahrir or in Tunisia or in Syria or wherever, they were chanting bits of poetry as their slogans. And one especially is a great septuagenarian Egyptian poet by the name of Ahmed Fouad Negm, who wrote a poem 50 years ago called "I Am The People," which became the rallying cry of these kids.
And I'll just read a couple of lines here. (Reading) I am the people marching, and I know my way. My struggle is my weapon, my determination my friend. I fight the nights and with my hope's eyes, I determine where true morning lies. My children will defeat every oppressor. Who can stand in my way? I am the people marching, and I know my way.
CONAN: Good stuff. Let's introduce now Assaf Gavron, and you come from Israel, which is not a place where facts have to be expressed as metaphor, yet you wrote a novel about the Second Intifada, the chuckle-fest known as the Second Intifada, as - in comic terms.
ASSAF GAVRON: Yeah, comedy is part of it, but maybe more than that is really trying to reach out to find the human side of it. As you said, when you read the news, you get the story, say, a suicide bomber made an attack in the middle of Jerusalem. And then you get the politicians from both sides, and then maybe you hear the story of this woman who lost her family.
But then - but that's it. And, you know, I'm asking what happens to this woman a week later when she goes to work, or a year later. And maybe more interestingly, what about the suicide bomber? Where did he come from? How did he reach this position where he takes his life and the life of others? You know, who - you know, who directed him there, and what's his story?
CONAN: In your novel "Croc Attack!" he is in a coma, and we hear his story through that interesting lens.
GAVRON: That's true. Actually, I should mention that the U.K. title is "Croc Attack!" and the U.S. title is "Almost Dead" for the American...
CONAN: Marketing is never a joke.
GAVRON: Yes, he's in a coma, and through his hallucinations and thoughts, we start to get his life, to get, you know, where he comes from and who influenced him in this way and who influenced him in another way because it's never a straightforward story. It's not like his brother is coming in and telling him you go and kill yourself. You know, he has other agendas conflicting him.
CONAN: Firoozeh Dumas, you were telling your stories of your family, but you must have also, growing up in this country, learned a lot about your region from books and stories and poems. Which ones?
DUMAS: Well, you know, there's a very rich history of oral storytelling in my family. So I've learned so much just from sitting in a living room listening to my aunts and uncles who always have a story ready to tell.
But I also want to add, I'm actually reading "Almost Dead" right now, and I think by reading a book like this, a person can learn more about what's going on right now between Israel and Palestine than you can by reading 10 academic books. And I can't recommend this book enough.
CONAN: As the author of academic books, I'm sure you agree, Reza Aslan.
ASLAN: Oh, yeah, I love "Almost Dead." I love everything that Assaf writes, but that's a particularly good one. No, but to your point, you're absolutely right. I mean, part of the reason that I wrote "Tablet and Pen" is that when we read histories of the Middle East, they're either written by scholars or academics or more likely by outsiders.
And I think that the way to truly understand this incredible mosaic of a region, with multiple cultures and multiple languages and peoples and religions, is through the words of the region's own writers and poets.
CONAN: Which of those writers and poets and humorists have you learned about the Middle East from? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And Assaf Gavron, I wanted to ask you, your - current events provided you with material, but this is also very slippery territory. This is people with very raw wounds that you're presenting these stories to.
GAVRON: That's true, and the fact of the matter is that in Israel, you know, I - this book received a cold shoulder. Colum was talking earlier about, you know, people just, you know, stacking their lives and not wanting to hear about other people's lives. And in Israel, it's definitely the case with Palestinians. You know, there's a big wall separating us, a real wall but also a metaphoric wall.
And Israelis just don't want to hear what's going on, like, 30 miles away.
CONAN: Firoozeh Dumas, do you write current events? Obviously, sweeping through Iran and through Iranian American communities, as well. How does change - does change inspire you? Does change limit you? How does it work?
DUMAS: You know, my writing always has to do with just regular, ordinary people. I never write about politics. I don't write about religion. And the reason for that is that I feel like every country in the Middle East gets, like, one soundbite in America.
And in my writing, all I try to do is go beyond that soundbite, and it's funny because as a humorist...
CONAN: Some countries are still waiting.
DUMAS: Yes, this is true, too. Well, there has to be a war, I think, to get that soundbite. But basically, you know, for me as a humorist, there's this huge element of surprise when people read my books, and they say I can't believe that I laughed out loud at a book written by Iranian woman.
And there's something so human - and we all have humor. And people don't realize that...
CONAN: That's not political at all.
DUMAS: Oh, no. Everything you do when you're Iranian ends up being political. But it's interesting to me that, like, a lot of Americans don't realize that the way Iranians even cope with what's going on right now in Iran is through humor, that it is a big part of our culture. But it's not something you ever seen in mainstream media.
CONAN: Reza Aslan, is that something that you find, that you highlight in your "Tablet and Pen?"
ASLAN: Well, to be honest, there's not a lot of humor in this. It's a collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoirs, novel excerpts from the last hundred years, translated from Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Urdu. And what's remarkable about it as I was putting together is that I realized that these were the people who actually defined the Middle East. They're the ones who gave shape, gave language to the identities that make up this incredibly eclectic part of the world.
And it was their words that helped to shed the chains of colonialism and imperialism. But what's fascinating is that even though they're the ones who were equally responsible for creating these nation-states, as soon as those states were formed, they became the state's primary enemies.
CONAN: Here's an email from Sara(ph): My name is Sara from Salt Lake City. One of the first books I read that illuminated the lives of people from the Middle East was "Arabian Jazz" by Diana Abu-Jaber. I read this wonderful coming-of-age story about first-generation Jordanian immigrants when I was 16, and I was completely entranced. I think that experience has colored my ongoing impressions.
What books and stories and jokes have taught you about people in the Middle East? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Institute today. On the streets of Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and beyond, writes Reza Aslan, literature has become a tool of revolution. Writers often draw inspiration from the world around them across the Middle East. From the Iranian revolution to 9/11 to the Arab Spring, that world has changed dramatically.
We're talking today with three writers from the region about how they capture these events in their novels, their poems and stories. Reza Aslan teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He wrote the book "No god, but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Novelist Assaf Gavron, his book is titled "Almost Dead." And Firoozeh Dumas, an author and humorist, her books include "Funny in Farsi" and "Laughing Without an Accent."
What books, stories and jokes have taught you about the people behind the headlines from the Middle East? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with John(ph), John on the line with us from Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
JOHN: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
JOHN: I'm a teacher and had the opportunity back in 1994, '95 to teach a course on Israel and Palestine, both through history and through literature. So we read David Shipler's book "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land."
CONAN: A journalist there.
JOHN: And Amos Oz' novel "Fima." And we read a collection by Ghassan Kanafani called "Men in the Sun." And at the time, I feel like my students and I got to see the world through the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis through those texts and were able to envision a way forward and paths towards reconciliation.
And I wonder now what books your panel would recommend to provide hope in a situation where - that I feel has become less hopeful for reconciliation.
CONAN: Assaf Gavron, you've sometimes been identified as the next generation after the Amos Ozes.
GAVRON: Yes, although the first book that comes to mind is one of the older generation, David Grossman "Until the End of the Land." And, yes, there's - you know, on the Palestinian side you have the poetry of Mohammed Darwish, and I mean, it's - the thing that this question raises is that actually it's hard work to keep following it because it changes all the time.
The listener taught the course in '94, '95, but so much has happened since. So you have to keep on reading.
CONAN: And for one thing, Darwish is no longer with us.
CONAN: Yeah. Is he popular in Israel? Is his work read?
GAVRON: Not enough, not by Israelis, but definitely for Palestinians and Arabs in the region he's a very important voice. But as I said, Israelis are not open enough. I hope that more writers, and I'm definitely trying, you know, to go in that way, will open up that perspective a little bit for Israelis and also for people outside Israel.
CONAN: Reza Aslan, would you have any recommendations?
ASLAN: Yeah, I - there's this wonderful - I was thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in particular, and a writer by name of Zakaria Mohammed, who wrote a book called "Is This Home?" about leaving Palestine as a young kid and then becoming sort of a real Palestinian identity activist until he goes back and realizes that his fellow Palestinians see him as American, not as Palestinian.
And it's really interesting because, again, as Assaf says, the way in which that conflict is viewed from the American lens is so drastically different than the way it's viewed on the ground there, that the only way that we can truly understand what's happening is to read the writers who are themselves on the ground, who represent in their writings and their very identities this conflict.
CONAN: Firoozeh Dumas, you're in a different situation. You're sort of betwixt and between. You're of there and of here.
DUMAS: Right, I am foreigner everywhere I go.
DUMAS: Thank you.
CONAN: And as you read - you must see these things through very different lenses.
DUMAS: Well, I do, and I think a lot of my writing has to do with actually what we have in common because I think there's so much emphasis on the news and in books written about what's different about us. And in my writing - and I don't do this intentionally, but just the fact that I write about families, and, you know, I seem to point out what we do have in common.
And I really do believe that our commonalities far outweigh our differences, but if you just learn about the world from the news, then you would never think that, you would think that we are completely different species from one another.
CONAN: John, are you still on the line?
CONAN: I wonder: Did your students learn more from the literature or more from the history, do you think?
JOHN: I think probably it depended on the student, just kind of what their lenses and predispositions were. And since that time, which was at the beginning of my career, I've always looked for opportunities to do kind of interdisciplinary courses so that you have history and literature side by side whether you're, you know, studying the 1920s with "The Great Gatsby," or you're doing a course of looking at another culture or a conflict.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, good luck.
JOHN: Thanks for the recommendations.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Cynthia, Cynthia with us from Vernon, New York.
CYNTHIA: Hi, everybody, keep on writing all you young folks. And I just have a couple just to - I'd like you to give your view about it, if you've read it. If you haven't, I recommend it; one about Israelis and Palestinians is "The Lemon Tree," it's an older book but great. And Riverbend, blogger, a young woman who blogged during the Iraq War and occupation.
And also there's a brand new one, I'm reading it now, I heard about it on NPR, "Newlyweds." It's about this Bangladesh woman who comes through Internet, you know, how they pick out brides and so forth. And it takes place in Rochester, New York. It's a very interesting - it's a novel.
And I agree with that young woman who just said that we're all human, we have many, many, many universal things like laws and family in common than we do differences. And the great book about that is from 1956, "Family of Man." I recommend that to every person in the world. It was written by - the photos are by Edward Steichen, and with the forward by Carl Sandburg.
And he said every child is - every man is all men, every woman is all women, and every child is all children. That's what we need to learn from all these writers and from our personal experiences, in my view.
CONAN: Cynthia, thanks very much for the recommendations and for the queries. We'll put them to our panel, appreciate it.
CONAN: And Firoozeh, I wanted to ask you, beginning with - she mentioned a blog, the Riverbend blog, I don't know if you're familiar with it, but I wonder how much the advent of a new media has changed things. How much of your material do you put on the Web? How much of your audience is developed that way?
DUMAS: Well, it's funny you say that because I was just talking to Reza yesterday, who is like king of the Web. And he was telling me that I don't do enough. And thing is, you know, I have three kids. And so I can either tweet or empty the dishwasher. So my challenge is actually trying to figure out how to get into social media.
I know, I don't use it. I'm guilty of not taking advantage of everything that's out there. But I am going to try more, as soon as that dishwasher is empty.
CONAN: Mr. King of the Web...
ASLAN: That's pretty impressive. Look, young people do not want to be passive consumers of art, entertainment or information anymore. They want to be active participants in it. And so that's where the Web comes. And it's just being defined now. I mean, I can't sit here and tell you that, you know, that the Web is doing X, Y and Z because we're in the midst of this transformation.
But I do think that it is going to transform literature. It's going to transform storytelling as we know it.
DUMAS: I just want to point out that Reza has someone who empties the dishwasher for him.
CONAN: Here's an email from Cathy(ph) in California: I discovered "Funny in Farsi" several years ago and have since sent and loaned it to several others. As it happened, one of the book groups I'm in is reading it this very month. I laughed loud at Firoozeh's father collecting airplane food items and the pursuit of bargains. It's a great read and connection to others who are the same but no different. So at least one fan out there, yeah.
DUMAS: Thank you.
CONAN: And this is interesting, an email from Nancy: I'm reading the most interesting and very human story called "House of Stone" by Anthony Shadid. He's an incredible storyteller, someone who makes me not only feel close to the people of Lebanon but also takes me back to understand the history of the region. For me, this is a true page-turner, and I love it.
And in way, Shadid is the expression of what we've been talking about here today, the late, great journalist for the Washington Post and the New York Times who wrote histories of the region, histories as they happened. But interestingly, Firoozeh, he ends up writing a book about his family and the house that they all originated from in Lebanon.
DUMAS: So are you thinking about Sandy Tolan?
CONAN: No, I'm thinking about Anthony Shadid, and Sandy Tolan too. But this is - "The House of Stone" is about his - the house where his family originated from. Reza, I'm sure you're familiar with it.
ASLAN: Yeah. I mean, this is - I mean, what's amazing about Anthony Shadid - and there's - we all miss him - there's nobody like him anymore, I don't think - is that he was the kind of journalist who was interested in storytelling, not just information gathering. And that's what we are here - storytellers. I mean stories are the only thing that can break through the boundaries that divide us into different nations and states and religions and ethnicities and cultures. We all share the same stories because they're about people. They're about who we are as human beings, not as symbols.
CONAN: Assaf Gavron, I wanted to ask you. I read the Israeli press mostly for stories of what's going on in Israel, and it's very lively. You get a lot of different opinions. Are there in the Israeli media stories about people in the Palestinian territories, in Iran, about people in the other parts of the region?
GAVRON: Well, we get the news, but again, not enough stories. There is one very brave journalist - actually, two in Haaretz: Gideon Levy and Amira Hass. And they go every week, and they bring stories from the Palestinian territories. But they are seen by most people in Israel as lunatics, and no one - not no one, but very few, too few people take them seriously. So we get - again, we get this wall. We don't hear enough.
CONAN: Do people take your work seriously?
GAVRON: Yeah. I hope so.
CONAN: In Israel, what I'm saying.
GAVRON: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Generally yes. But I also wanted to make another recommendation that popped in my head...
GAVRON: ...which is Sayed Kashua. He's an Israeli-Arab, a young guy, and he's very successful in Israel, and he's very funny also, if we're talking about humor. I think the name - the title of his new book, which is supposed to be in English, is "Second Person," and it's brilliant.
He's a guy who's like - if we're talking about identity, it's like I don't know how he can carry all this. He's in the middle between Israel - he's an Israeli citizen, but he's a Palestinian in origin. And this is a heavy load, but he writes it in such a funny and entertaining way.
CONAN: That's Assaf Gavron. His books include "Almost Dead," as it's known in this side of the water. He's with us here at the Aspen Institute at the Paepcke Auditorium. Our other guests are Firoozeh Dumas, who's a humorist and author, her books "Funny in Farsi" and "Laughing Without an Accent"; and Reza Aslan, writer and scholar of religions, edited the anthology of Middle Eastern literature called "Tablet & Pen," author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Anindo(ph) from Sacramento.
ANINDO: Hi. Thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ANINDO: Yeah. I'm a college debater, and our topic - a college policy debater - and our topic last year was about whether the U.S. should provide democracy assistance in Middle East and North Africa. Now, throughout the year, we've read a few books and such. And one of the books that a lot of people (unintelligible) went across was the late Edward Said's "Orientalism."
And so my question to your panelists are - how do Americans change their view on the policies in Middle East and the way life is, considering, you know, both in academia and literature (unintelligible) the Orientalist tropes and representations of people in the Middle East?
CONAN: I'll turn that to our scholar, Reza Aslan.
ASLAN: I don't want to keep harping on this, but I'll tell you how you don't change perceptions by the media or by scholars or by politicians. The only way that you can change your perceptions is not by gathering data. Data doesn't change people's minds. Relationships change people's minds. And the only way that some guy living in Wisconsin is going to have a relationship with some guy living in Tehran is by reading his stories, by learning who he is.
Colum was talking about Story Swap. All three of us here, including Luis Urrea, who is coming up in a little while, we're all supporters of Story Swap because that's how you understand the other, by hearing their story. There is no other way. The media is not going to do it. Scholars like myself can't help you. Politicians can't help you. It's just about the power of stories.
CONAN: And, Firoozeh Dumas, as you tell your stories, do you think you're making an effect? Do you think you're changing things?
DUMAS: Oh, I do. Actually, I'm lucky enough to be on the lecture circuit, and so I get to travel throughout the United States. And I generally get invited to places where there are not a lot of Iranians. I'm like the Iranian to go.
DUMAS: And the - you know, when I give a lecture and then there's always a Q&A, and I feel like I could stay for seven hours, and the questions continue. And there's always this element of surprise. People - I can't tell you how much - how many times people has said to me you're not at all what I expected when they said there was an Iranian woman coming. And I - it's like being an overweight gymnast. There is that element of surprise.
DUMAS: What I find is I think actually Americans are so hungry for information about the Middle East, but stories about the Middle East, not just all the scary news, all this bad news that we're bombarded with that makes us just have reason to hate. And I think there are so many politicians who make their entire career based on telling people, yes, you should be afraid. And what we do as storytellers is try to build bridges and say actually you don't need to be afraid, we have a lot in common. But I just want to say, it is so easy to bomb a bridge, and it takes so much effort to build one.
CONAN: Assaf Gavron, that seemed to be the situation you were describing - people not wanting to hear the stories of the other side so that the wall could stay up.
GAVRON: Yeah, that's true, and actually it goes both ways. I keep talking about Israelis don't - not wanting to hear Palestinian stories. But the same goes, for example, with settlers, you know? Settlers are a big - big in the news in recent months and years. And the mainstream Israeli society also, they have a stereotype. They have an opinion. They either hate them or love them, but they don't know what's the story.
What happens when, you know, when the settler wakes up in the morning? What does he do? Where does he go to? What does he tell his son? And how does his house look? You know, we know they live in these kind of caravans. How does the synagogue look? What's his, you know, daily life look like?
CONAN: And how different is it from where he grew up in Brooklyn?
GAVRON: Some of them are from Brooklyn, but, you know, they're from...
CONAN: They're from everywhere.
GAVRON: Actually, that's the fascinating thing. They're from everywhere, from different parts of the Israeli society and from different parts of the world, Brooklyn or France or Russia.
CONAN: Assaf Gavron is with us here in Aspen. Also, our thanks to Firoozeh Dumas. And again, happy birthday.
DUMAS: Thank you.
CONAN: And also with us, Reza Aslan, writer and scholar of religions. Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Coming up, as mentioned, the king of not just the Web but the king of the impromptu foreword promo. Luis Alberto Urrea covers the immigration story through the stories of immigrants. After recent decisions by President Obama and the Supreme Court, these stories are changing. He'll tell us how next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.