A genial tale of self-assertion by an Okinawan house-husband

Most of the fiction from Okinawa I have read deals either with relations with US military personnel or with discrimination against Okinawans by Japanese from the northern archipelago. “Fortunes by the Sea” (Kahô wa umi kara), the 1998 novella by Eiki Matayoshi, the 1995 winner of the Akutagawa Prize has an entirely intraethnic focus. The protagonist Kazuhisa is a fifth son who is married out, that is takes on the patronym of his wife and is responsible with carrying on the line of his wife(‘s father).

As on Taiwan, there is something humiliating about being annexed by another lineage. This is exacerbated in Kazuhisa’s case in that despite the substantial income the family receives from renting land to the US, both his wife and her father continue to work, while Kazuhisa, a college graduate, performs domestic labor (cooking, laundry) and is a literal lay-about, dreaming under an oracle tree.

He takes to going fishing after his wife and father are asleep and meets a pair of sisters from the Okinawan mainland. They run a tavern and are professionals at drawing out and making men comfortable. Their pleasant encounter (consuming a taman [snakehead] he caught) inspires him to go visit them. Having no money beyond the household allowance doled out to him and for which he must account, he decides to steal a goat to take and exchange for drinks.

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He is prone to seasickness, so the voyage across the straits is a major undertaking beyond his theft and staying out all night. The expedition surprises his father-in-law and increases Kazuhisa’s status at home. Whether he will sire an heir on his skititsh, sex-phobic wife (who arranges to spend every night at meetings of voluntary associations, some of which she heads) remains to be seen at the end of the genial, mock-heroic tale.

The translation by David Fahy occupies the last 71 pages of Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries

 

Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.

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They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.

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Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Medoruma Shun’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novella “Droplets”

Medoruma Shun won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for Suiteki (水滴 A Drop Of Water, translated by Michael Molasky as “Droplets“). Owing perhaps a little to Kafkza’s “Metamorphosis,” it is a work of Okinawan “magical realism.” Fifty years after the epic carnage of the Battle of Okinawa, a veteran named Tokushô wakes up one morning unable to move or speak with his right shin grotesquely bloated, resembling a gourd melon (tôgan). His hard-working wife Ushi is frustrated that she will have to do all the work in the fields. Convinced that villagers are experimented on in university hospitals, she refuses to allow their physician to have Tokushô admitted to one.

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The liquid that drips out between the big toe and its neighbor is analyzed as ordinary water. Every night ghosts (I use the word since they can go through walls, they are not labeled anything in the English translation) who were left to die in a cave by Tokushô and other wounded but ambulatory soldiers come and drink the droplets from his foot. His generalized survivor guilt it concentrated on Ishimine, a comrade from the same area of Okinawa to whom Tokushô promised to bring water, but didn’t. Ishimine’s ghost does not speak, but Tokushô feels forgiven before the swelling subsides and he is able to move and speak again.

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POW on Okinawa, 1945 (in public domain)

Tokushô’s cousin, Seiyû, who strikes me as a sort of minor league Milo Minderbender, discovers that the drippings can stimulate the growth of hair and also cure impotency and, unbeknownst to Tokushô or Ushi, makes a small fortune selling bottles of the drippings. The effects prove to be only temporary and the hustler is set upon by those who bought “miracle water” from him.

 

In common with Medoruma’s masterful novel In the Woods of Memory (first published in Japanese in 2009, just published in English), “Droplets” shows the agonies of 1945 still festering half a century later and also shows rural Okinawans as being far from noble or innocent (though those in “Droplets” do not behave as badly as the bullies and serial rapists of Woods). I find the characters less developed (though taking up equivalent space on pages) in “Droplets,” and the novella more interesting as phenomenon than as literature. I did not find it “engaging,” as Akutagawa jude Kôno Taeko did.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Blaming the victim magnifies the trauma of gang rape

The first novel by Okinawan writer and activist Medoruma Shun, In the Woods of Memory (Me no okay no mori, more literally “I’m not OK, nor dead”, 2009) to be translated into English, is a masterpiece, albeit one to make Okinawan or American readers (or probably any kind!) uncomfortable. It has some resonances with Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Rashômon” and its source “Yabu no naka” (In a Grove) by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. (Medoruma won the 1997 Akutagawa prize, btw) in that the work centers on a rape in a woods and multiple perspectives.

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Medoruma’s novel (based on a story his grandmother told him about a rape by US soldiers of an Okinawan girl in northern Okinawa) is more a mosaic with nine different protagonists (not all narrators) from 1945 and 2005, rather than the puzzle of accounts by unreliable, self-serving narrators of “Rashômon.” It also differs in that there are rapists (plural, and they also raped other villagers) and that they are alien (American). There is indirect testimony from one of the rapists, but not from the victim (the raped woman in “Rashômon” presents her account), Sayoko.

Sayoko was with some younger girls gathering food on a beach across from a recently constructed US pier. Such soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who had not retreated to the south of Okinawa were prisoners, and there was not yet a US occupation regime in place on Yagaji Island.

Having finished their tasks, four GIs stripped down to their underwear and swam across, planning to return immediately a distance of only about a hundred yards. The terror of the girls on the beach stimulated sadism in the GIs who took the oldest girl, the village beauty, the very good-hearted Sayoko into the woods and gang-raped her.

On a later day, four GIs (it is not clear until later whether it was the same four) were again swimming over. Sayoko’s neighbor, Seiji, how had long had a crush on Sayoko and more or less lived in the water took his harpoon and swam toward the Americans (the harpoon tied to his wrist and not visible). He swam under one of the Americans and stabbed him in the gut (aiming for the liver). Two of the Americans pursued him, and Seiji stabbed one of them in the shoulder (the harpoon lodged there).

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(a grove by the beach on Yagaji Island, from WIkimedia Commons)

 

Later, Seiji hid in a cave. The village headman, who was eager to curry favor with the occupying Americans, betrayed his whereabouts. Seiji was smoked out with tear gas and shot several times. The villagers, who had been surprised that Seiji had not been slain with poison gas, assumed he would be executed, and were eager to tell the Americans that Seiji had acted alone, though many were ashamed at their failure to do anything to protect or avenge their women who were violated.

Only three of the eleven chapters are set in 1945. The events still reverberate on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, and the traumas (including ongoing mistreatment of Sayoko, who was unhinged in part by her father’s rejection of her following the traumas of the gang rape) linger.

Although the prime villains are obviously the four American rapists (three of whom died soon thereafter in the Battle of Okinawa without being court-martialed for the rape), the Okinawans both of the 1940s and 2000s do not come off well, bullying Seiji before and after the “incident” and Sayoko after it (including more rapes), along with a young Okinawan middle-school student (a first-person female narrator whose name is not mentioned).

Several of the characters in the 2005 chapters also recall the 1995 instance of three American servicemen raping an Okinawan elementary-school student. 9-11 also crops up. Much more than the rape and stab at revenge are remembered—and festering not only for those who were alive in 1945 but for those who were not then yet born — in Medoruma’s powerful book.

Despite the accretion of information about various individuals with a wide range of connections to the 1945 events on Yagaji Island, the book is not a difficult read, though the stream of consciousness Seiji chapters were more difficult (but not comparable in disorientation to Benjy’s in The Sound and the Fury, for instance). The original Japanese was mixed with Okinawan (the languages are not mutually intelligible and the Japanese have attempted to eliminate Okinawan (Ruykuan) since annexing the Ryuku Islands in 1879) in Medoruma’s book, a disorienting effect not available in English translation. Translator Takuma (né Paul) Sminkey (who teaches at Okinawa International University) made the reader-friendly addition of chapter titles (the name of the main character in each one) with the date (1945 or 2005) and also a preface providing context about Medoruma and the language (Japanese/Okinawan code-shifting) issue. The book was beautifully produced by Stone Bridge Press with a map, a character table, and an illuminated afterword by Kyle Ikeda.

Some of Medoruma’s short fiction has been translated into and included in anthologies. I hope that his other two (earlier) novels, The Crying Wind (2004) and The Rainbow Bird (2006) will follow in English translation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

War-enforced separation and diffidence providing obstacles to cross-class amour

According to André Aciman’s introduction to the New York Review publication, the first in English, of Journey Into the Past, its author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was translated into more languages than any of his contemporaries (Freud? Mann?). A part of the novella to which Aciman (Out of Egypt) provides way-too-long an introduction-in fact a complete retelling-was published in German in 1929. A manuscript was found and published in German during the 1970s, but in English only last November.

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The novella reminds me of “Brief Encounter,” though that script by Noël Coward (expanding his play “Still Life”) for David Lean’s 1945 tearjerker movies takes place entirely in a British railway station and involves a middle-class woman (Celia Johnson) and a physician (Trevor Howard) of roughly the same age, both of them married. One resemblance is that the man is going off to another continent.

Zweig’s pair differ in age (the woman is older) and their status difference is the opposite (the woman’s is much higher). They spend no time in train stations, though the flashbacks occur while they are in a train between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. The POV is that of the man, Ludwig, a chemist from a very poor family who became the in-house assistant to an unwell industrialist. The wife is very sensitive to the young man’s pride, and they fall in love, though he did not become fully aware of that until the eve of his departure to Mexico to oversee supply of some unspecified metal vital to the company.

There is not hint that the industrialist sent away a rival or had any awareness of their mutual attraction. As the job in Mexico is successfully accomplished, Europe plunges into war (WWI) and Ludwig not only cannot return, but cannot even communicate by letter with his beloved.
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I don’t want to emulate Aciman in plot-spoiling, but there are obstacles other than the class ones (which have been lessened by Ludwig’s Mexican success) to ecstatic, delayed reunion. (WWI ran August 1914- November 1918, and if Ludwig left in 1912, nine years would place the return to where he had lived in Frankfurt in 1923. Zweig did not offer any explanation of why the return wasn’t in 1919.)

For all the shared regret for the long separation-blamed on geopolitical interference-diffidence remains. (She feels old now and believes that “when a woman’s hair turns grey, she has no more to wish for, no more to give”) Ludwig remembers (not quite correctly) a couplet from Verlaine:

In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast
Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.

The regret-filled lovers are not specters, hair dye existed during the 1920s (not that Ludwig is put off by the grey of his beloved’s hair), and the past could be prologue.

The black-and-white movie-like 82-page novella is framed by substantial texts about Zweig and it. Award-winning translator Anthea Bell’s afterword should have been first and Aciman need not have told the whole story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Not being able to write the books he wanted to write

Marcel Bénabou’s often funny, but ultimately poignant Why I Have Not Written Any of My Boosk/Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres(1986), seems to me to have some continuities with the prolific (albeit once-stalled) American writer with the meteoric rise, Michael Chabon. (Meteors flash and burn out, so I don’t quite understand the analogy… There is the Jewish boy’s ontogeny of the phylogeny of being the Chosen People (“No one around me, or at least no one in the narrow confines of my family, had ever doubted that my destiny would be a singular one”-71). And the reverence for sonorous words:

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“I never ran the risk of confusing things with their names. Most of the words I used were already almost entirely detached from their natural ties to things, and for this reason I found them intoxicatingly light. No heaviness came along to pull them down to the ground. The ones I loved the most (bergamot, natelle, botargo, galoubet, caillebotis) were attached to nothing I had before my eye. They were beautiful, shimmering, iridescent bubbles, and their emptiness mad them all the more precious to me.” (73-74)

And I apply Chabon’s vocation to use the resources of English words in “Things remain in existence only thanks to the effort made by a few people to recreate them day by day” (98, i.e., “if not me, who?”)

Chabon dramatized not being able to finish a book (the model for which always seemed arbitrary to him, whereas what the characters would do and say was clear to him in C&K). Bénabou addresses the multiple reasons not to write as “what had been a confident wait imperceptibly transformed itself into torpor” (62) and reading became a kind of bulimia in which he devoured much (writing by others) without retaining any trace (44).

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BTW, Bénabou also published the magnum opus of his work as a historian in 1976, La Résistance africaine à la romanisation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The Moroccan Jewish diaspora, memory, etc.

I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.

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The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).

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Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.

Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)

Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).

(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)

The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Better late than never (filial piety and research into family history)

The hardcover version of Ariel Sabar’s 2008 book My Father’s Paradise is subtitled “A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” to which could be appended, “Jerusalem, Yale, and UCLA.”  (The paperback shortened the subtitle to “A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past.”)  The subtitular father, Yona Sabar, was born Yona Beh Sabagha in Zakho, a town in the middle of Kurdistan. Since Kurdistan is not a country, Zakho is in Iraq close to the border with Turkey.
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After Israel defeated various Arab armies attempting to obliterate it in 1950, Jews across dar-al-Islam (the abode of Islam) were persecuted and many driven out. In Iraq, Kurds were second-class citizens to the ruling Sunni Arabs, and the officials in Baghdad socially doubly stigmatized Kurdish Jews, and the Jews of Zakho left between 1948 and 1950. Though not yet old enough for it, Yona was the last person bar-mitzvahed in Zakho.

The émigrés from Kurdistan (and other Jews from  other Muslim countries who were “ingathered” by mounting pressure) were treated as inferior to Ashkenazi Jews (from  northern/eastern Europe), Yona’s father’s heart was broken by the “return” (after 27 centuries) to Israel. Yona worked very hard, and got a scholarship to Yale, to be trained at analyzing his native language, Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East, including Nazareth (yes, “the language of Jesus”).

Arabic (a related, Semitic language) replaced Aramaic as a lingua franca roughly seven centuries ago, but the language continued to be the language of the isolated Kurdish Jews. With the “ingathering,” Aramaic became a dying language, with Hebrew-revived after not being spoken for two millennia-the language of the state of Israel.

Ariel Sabar does not mention that by 1962 Chomskyan dogma that was dominating American linguistics particularly glorified native speaker judgments of grammaticality. Maybe that is not all that relevant for Semitic philology, but Yona Sabar was also able to understand the stories he elicited and convey cultural background. This is not in any way to detract from his analytical abilities, but he was the kind of native analyst who should  -and was – nurtured to explicate as well as salvage a dying language. (Yona Sabar compiled a dictionary of Neo-Aramaic and has published widely on folklore as well as linguistic analysis of his mother tongue.)

In adulthood, after being embarrassed by his foreign father through childhood and especially adolescence, Ariel came to appreciate the very high regard in which his father was held in academia and in the remnants of the Speaking-speaking ghettoes of Israel. Ariel also came to appreciate that what is now only a memory-culture of the lifeways of Jewish communities that had been in what is now Kurdistan from the eighth century B.C. to the mid-twentieth century would not be available to be elicited much longer.

So, the journalist keenly aware of his decades of filial impiety set out to write the story of his father and that of the Jews in Zakho… and of his own belated interest in his roots. I think Ariel wrote interestingly and sagaciously about all three, being appropriately hard on his own younger self’s irritation at his father’s modus operandi, before realizing the life experiences (not just Yona’s own, but his natal community’s) that made keeping your head down and preparing for the worst essential to survival.

Kurdish Jews, Christians, and Muslims got along, and the Sabars (at least so far as Ariel reports) found only nostalgia and positive memories of the Jews in Zakho, which has become prosperous since Kurdish autonomy following the first Iraq war (which began a no-fly zone on Saddam Hussein).

Though having access to documents, including old letter and diaries, and interviewing roughly a hundred people, and studying the transcripts of Yona’s elicitations of Yona’s mother’s life story, Ariel Sabar imagined a whole lot of dialogue over the course of Yona’s life. And even that from Ariel’s own two visits to Zakho – the first with his father, the second alone –  are vivified by what I doubt is quoted speech. The author is literally upfront (on the first page of text) that he combined a few minor characters and that
“While this book is by and large a work of nonfiction, it is not formal history or biography. Nor is it journalism. In parts of this story where key sources had died or where memories had faded, I built on the framework of known fact and let myself imagine how the particulars of a scene or dialogue would have unfolded.”

This makes for a more vivid, readable book, but as someone interested in the history of anthropological linguistics and of fieldwork experiences, I like documentation (in endnotes is fine). There are scenes from the past in Zakho, in transit, and in Jerusalem for which I know the dialogue is imagined. My frustration (a minor and close to idiosyncratic one, I know) is the extent to which recollections in quotation marks are direct quotations. Nevertheless, I’ll conclude with a direct quotation from Ariel Sabar: Yona Sabar “sublimated homesickness into a career.”

The book won the  National Book Critic Circle’s 2008 award for autobiography. Another nominee I commend is Andrew X. Pham’s The Eaves of Heaven, which is also heavily concerned with family and exile.

Sabar has more recently researched (and provided dialogue for) the stories of straight couples who met at some NYC iconic site, published as Heart of the City (2011). And a 2014 Kindle Single, The Outsider: The Life and Times of Roger Barker.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Luminous essays about exile and memory from André Aciman

Born in Alexandria on the second day of 1951, when it was still the cosmopolitan port city of Alexander Durell’s Alexandria Quartet and Constantine Cavafy’s elegies, André Aciman wrote a remarkably un-self-pitying memoir of his family being forced to sell out at a pittance and get Out of Egypt (the book was published in 1995).

What we now call “ethnic cleansing” of non-Muslims (including Arab ones) began with the creation of Israel and the 1948 war in which Arab armies failed to annihilate it and escalated after the 1956 “Suez crisis.” The world of wealth the author’s family had enjoyed in Alexandria for half a century eroded very rapidly before he and they left in 1956. Out of Egypt (like the more recent memoir of extrusion from Iraq  of Ariel Sabar and  Marcel Bénabou  Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic) is a vivid reminder that if Israel is an apartheid state, so are all of its neighbors, including even the officially secular state of Turkey from which I just returned. Jews were forced out of places they had lived for generations, and their assets looted across the Middle East. Christians have not fared much better in post-WWII Arab or Turkish or Persian nationalist pogroms (Coptic Christians are much persecuted in contemporary Egypt and Syraic Christians forced out of Turkey are far worse off than they were under the rule of early Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent; Turkey is now 99% Muslim having driven off or slaughtered Armenian, Greek, and Syraic Christians.)

Aciman is not a political writer, a Zionist in even the blandest sense, nor a religiously observant Jews. His essay “In a Double Exile” in False Papers records his discomfort with Passover seders and keen sense of irony about celebrating flight from Egypt, something he did not want to repeat millennia later. Even writing about a visit to Alexandria in “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory” (the appellation is Durrell’s) Aciman does not write with bitterness about the rarely visited cemetery where one of his grandfather’s is buried (I remember from Out of Egypt that his grandfathers did not get along with each other and that neither had much interest in Egypt).
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False Papers collects eleven essays and three “tales.” The latter, of which “Arbitrage” seems to me the best, strike me as nonfiction, though each involves a story Aciman tried to imagine and write (including one of visiting his grandfather’s grave, as he imagine it years before he actually made the visit).

Among the essays that I found particularly strong was “Becket’s Winter,” with which I could readily identify, having also been fascinated by the movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole; “A Late Lunch” in which the author takes a son to a meeting with the author’s aged father and speculates about how his son will remember it and him in the future; “Letter from Illier-Combray” in which he finds the house written about by Marcel Proust smaller than he expected; and “In the Muslim City of Bethlehem,” an account of preparations for Christmas with its influx of Greek, Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians who despise each other in the town that had in 1996 just been ceded to Palestinian control.

Of three essays about changing features of Manhattan, the one that seems to me the strongest (for someone with no nostalgia for any of the tree foci) is Straus Park on the upper West Side (“Shadow Cities”). Aciman is hyper-aware of his Proustian tendency to imagine time lost (and Albertines vanished) while storing away memories to be written later and not much living in the moment and enjoying any pleasures except those of anticipating mourning their loss. With a focus somewhat more on a person, though still very much a person in particular places, “Counterintuition” analyzes Aciman’s Proustian and Stendahlian pathologies.

“Counterintuition” also includes a pattern central to Aciman’s first novel (published in 2007) and inscribed in its title Call Me By Your Name in that tale of a very different (in time, place, gender, and mutuality) attempt at intimacy. The novel drips with poignant memories of love in the past, but seems to me to invoke less cerebral pleasures, as well as a sharing of memories of a passionate relationship from the past that is quite unlike the mournfully ironic Les Temps retrouvé (The Past Regained) that concludes Proust’s vast roman fleuve.

Aciman’s syntax is not asthmatic, and is easier to read than Proust’s. His sentences are quite beautifully crafted. Aciman is a keen analysis of the workings of memory, including Proust’s, Stendahl’s, and his own. He is also a keen analyst of exile, involuntary diaspora, not just from Egypt but from Europe (particularly Paris, but also Rome when he longed to be in Paris if he could not be in an already vanished Jewish world of Alexandria).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A memoir about straddling the tectonic plates of Islam and modernism

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a generally sound injunction. Yet sometimes the book inside a cover that catches the eye pays off the promise of the cover. One instance is the From the Land of the Green Ghosts, a memoir by Pascal Khoo Thwe of growing up in a non-Burmen tribe (Padaung) in Burma, going to college in Rangoon, and then in Cambridge. The dove on a turban of a bright-eyed brown-skinned boy on the cover of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story (published in 2002) is another instance both of a striking cover photo but of an excellent culture-crossing memoir. It author, Tamim Ansary, was born and spent his first years within the enclave in Kabul of what he refers to as a “clan” (and I would call an “extended family,” since I think that a “clan” has a headman), then went to a model modernizing school that pioneered co-education, then went to the United States with his Finnish-American mother, where he attended Reed College, underwent a hippie phase, tried to return via Iran to see what was going on in his homeland in the first years of Iran’s Islamic “revolution.” The book also reflects on the Taliban, and the vengances (including “nuking Afghanistan”) advocated after 9/11.

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The memoir has three main parts. The first recalls “the lost world” of Ansary’s youth in an Afghanistan that he describes as not substantially differing from the Neolithic era. The second focuses on a journey across North Africa in 1979. The third part discusses his life in America, which included attempts to organize US West Coast Afghan-Americans to aid refugees from the Soviet invasion and later mujahedeen and Taliban oppressions. Appended is an e-mail Ansary wrote 9/12/01 that had very wide circulation and that clearly stated what the subcontracting/privatization mentality of the Bush administration refused to understand. The 9/12 e-mail brought Ansary to public prominence, but the quality of his book does not depend on the prophetic insights of what were the first words heard in the west after the airliner-hijacking attacks about al-Quaeda and the Taliban from a native of Afghanistan.

The first part of the book is, perhaps, the most unique contribution. Ansary attempts to explain what it was like to live in a walled family enclosure: not just the insularity (that seems suffocating to those of us socialized for privacy and autonomy), but the security of being part of a clan. “Being at home with the group gave them the satisfactions we [that is westerners] associate with solitude—ease, comfort and the freedom to let down one’s guard.” I think this is also relevant to group-oriented Japanese, to take one non-Muslim instance. The small world of the compound was one in which women, who were veiled when they ventured outside it, had freedom of movement and were not veiled.

The first part also describes his restive Finnish-American mother (met while his father was a student in the US) and some accommodation of her alienness: “The family took her in as the Permanent Guest, always to be honored, loved and cared for. Afghan society settled on treating her as an exception to the rules of gender: she was considered neither female nor male, but American.” (Such a status has recurrently been invoked for female anthropologist fieldworkers in patriarchal societies in which women have no public role.)

Ansary (at least in the retrospective gaze of the memoirist) is more aware of his privileged existence, as a son of the elite, than André Aciman was in his memoir Out of Egypt. The family name “Ansary” designates a descendant of the people who helped Mohammed escape from Medina, so has high prestige within dar-al-Islam. Ansary’s father was a poet (in a culture in which poetry is very highly valued), one of the first four Afghans who went to college in the west, a literature professor, and later a government official. The king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan, the prime minister—were trying to modernize Afghanistan during the late-1950s and thereafter. Part of the modernization—that enraged the imams in Kandahar—was unveiling women. (In 1959, Daoud had challenged Afghanistan’s imams to show him the passage in the Qu’ran that mandated the veil. When they could not, he declared the veil un-Islamic, and the women of the royal family bared their faces in public.”) The “slippery slope” of modernization continued with co-education, in which Ansary’s sister was one of the few girls thrust into heretofore all-male classes.

Daoud sought Soviet aid, which led to a Soviet puppet regime, and the arming of Islamists (including the forerunners of al-Quaeda) by the Reagan administration. This bled the Soviets. Following the Soviet retreat, the warlord era (1989-1993) segued into Taliban domination and its concerted efforts to roll back modernization (including banning possession of transistor radios and razor blades and limitations on women far in excess of those of the traditional culture of Ansary’s childhood).

One particularly interesting point that Ansary makes is that the Taliban zealots had mostly not grown up in traditional Afghanistan, but in refugee camps inside Pakistan with a fragmented social structure, indoctrination by anti-western (anti-modernist) zealots and shamed in multiple ways, and fantasies about a past that never existed.

The second part is a darkly comic account of 1979 travel misadventures in North Africa and eastward (including great difficulty in cashing American Express travelers’ checks) with a sometimes farcical but troubling discovery of what being Muslim meant to many young Muslims inspired by Khomeni’s Islamism.

Ansary’s assimilation into American life is a more familiar story. What particularly stands out in it is his account of the profusion of Afghan American groups. No one wanted to join an existing group, assuming that all the plum leadership roles had already been taken. Better to start one’s own and hope for greater success in becoming the organization (government in exile) that the US would impose. (Analogies to Iraq are too obvious to elaborate upon.)

The book provides insight into a vanished world, and the all-too-eventful history of Afghanistan in the second half of the twentieth century, although, between Ansary’s privileged status and the lack of experience of it of those who grew up in the 1980s and thereafter, generalizability is limited. His younger brother, Riaz, who had less experience of the traditional society, is the family member who became a zealous Islamist (living in Ameica). The book also shows how Islamism looks to a non-Islamist Muslim, who was appalled by the Taliban and loathed Osama Bin-Laden long before 9/11/2001. Ansary has observed and reflected upon the uncomfortable widening divide between the postmodernist west and the antimodernist mobilization that is sometimes misidentified as “fundamentalism” (in multiple religions, not just Islam) in his life’s trajectory (to the west), in traveling, and within his (nuclear) family. What he has to say is in this engagingly written book is of interest even beyond putting a human face on the agonies of Afghan experiences.

 

©2006, 2017, Stephen O. Murray