critique
The not-so-curious case of Khaled Hosseini
The misunderstanding to which the common western readers seem to have succumbed is that Hosseini's works are the representatives of Afghan culture. As far as Hosseini is concerned he seems to be in the right place at the right time
By Bilal ibn Rasheed
Often we find a work of fiction topping bestseller lists, selling millions of copies within weeks of its publication, and making a hitherto unknown author's name a household word and the rich author richer. Unlike lay readers what concerns a student of fiction and literature in general, is: what makes a bestseller a bestseller?

The artistic crescent
Al Mansurah formed a nucleus of Islamic culture in the entire Islamic world and particularly in the subcontinent
By Sarwat Ali
History of Islamic Art
By Dr Shahid Ahmad Rajput
Publisher: Sang e Meel Publications, 2009
Pages: 200
Price: Rs 2000
Though Sindh has been part of the Islamic caliphate since the early years of the 8th century, as the cities, towns and routes have been described by the Arab historians and geographers, but no systematic and sustained effort has been made to explore the archaeological and architectural treasures of this area.

A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
English fiction by Pakistani writers
The South Asian Journal, which is published from Lahore under the editorship of Imtiaz Alam, has many distinctions. It's the first scholarly quarterly devoted to analytical study of various cultural, economic and political issues related to our corner of the globe which is inhabited by more than one-fifth of humanity.

 

 

 

critique

The not-so-curious case of Khaled Hosseini

The misunderstanding to which the common western readers seem to have succumbed is that Hosseini's works are the representatives of Afghan culture. As far as Hosseini is concerned he seems to be in the right place at the right time

By Bilal ibn Rasheed

Often we find a work of fiction topping bestseller lists, selling millions of copies within weeks of its publication, and making a hitherto unknown author's name a household word and the rich author richer. Unlike lay readers what concerns a student of fiction and literature in general, is: what makes a bestseller a bestseller?

Khaled Hosseini, a Tajik-Afghan-American, broke into print in 2003 with his novel The Kite Runner. The novel, an instant success, sold millions of copies. Enthralled by his success and fame a year and a half later, Hosseini, a medical man, left his medical practice to pursue a career in creative writing. In 2007, he published his second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns that has also sold hundreds of thousands of copies. As a novelist, Hosseini has been phenomenal, becoming a sort of a benchmark in the publishing world.

An attempt would be made here to unveil the probable reasons of Hosseini's monumental achievements.

The Kite Runner, also a motion picture now, is a story of Amir, a son of a wealthy businessman, who grows up with Hassan -- his half brother (an illegitimate son of his father). He tries to win over his father's heart by winning the kite-fighting tournament while Hassan is hounded by Assef, a neighborhood boy who buggers Hassan. Amir, fearful of Assef, stands aloof. In Dec 1979, the Russians invade Afghanistan and Amir's father takes him to Pakistan and then to America where Amir grows agnostic and marries Soraya Tahiri, a daughter of an Afghan general. They remain childless and Amir starts writing novels. In 2001, Rahim Khan asks Amir to go to Afghanistan because "there is a way to be good again." Afghanistan in 2001 is under the puritanical rule of the Taliban. Hassan has married Farzana; they have a son, Sohrab. After Hassan and Farzana get killed, Sohrab is admitted to an orphanage from where Assef, now a Talib, plucks him. To get Sohrab, Amir visits Assef who thrashes him while Sohrab comes to Amir's rescue. He is later convinced by Amir to go to America, the land of hope and freedom.

The Kite Runner is a story told in first person by Amir. The first person narrative usually has a relatively pronounced effect on the readers as compared to a narrative in third person, but it has some innate restrictions and therefore, leaves limited room for a novelist to maneuver. Hosseini seems to have done a fairly decent job in narrating the story in first person.

Right from the onset Hosseini casts a spell by using contrasting characters -- Amir and Hassan, Baba and Ali, Sofia Akrami and Sanaubar; their social, religious and racial attributes -- Sunni and Shiite, Pashtun and Hazara, rich and poor, pious and sinful; and their viewpoints -- Baba's and Ali's, Baba's and Rahim Khan's. These juxtapositions continue till the end and this blend of altogether contrasting but intricately related characters is, by far, the most impressive attribute of the novel. Obviously, Hosseini has included autobiographical details and has done a commendable job in fictionalising them.

The important question is: why and how Hosseini got the success he got? After all, in today's world literary merit and instinctive storytelling skills alone do not make a work a bestseller.

To me, the most important factor responsible for Hosseini's success and record sales is what is called "space-time coordinates." The zeitgeist and Hosseini were ideal for each other. (The Kite Runner was published in 2003 in the United States of America.) In 2001 the US started the invasion of Afghanistan assuming that the attacks on the World Trade Centre were conducted by al-Qaeda. These were the same Afghans and jehadists whom America had supported against the Russians and left them with weaponry worth billions of dollars when the Russians withdrew. And there it was -- a story about Afghanistan, a country ordinary Americans know only through news accounts of terrorism, told by none other than a native Afghan. It is, writes Amelia Hill of The Observer, "the first Afghan novel to be written in English" and Hosseini is "the first Afghan novelist to fictionalise his culture for a Western readership."

Far from an abysmally abject and war-torn Afghanistan, in another continent, in another country which is the biggest manipulator, exploiter and usurper of human and material resources of the world, a Tajik-Afghan -- who has not seen a single day of war in Afghanistan, has never experienced the horrors of poverty, speaks the tongue of American masters, is serving the American society and who is even an American citizen -- eulogised the Land of Hope and Freedom.

The first few paragraphs of chapter eleven of The Kite Runner could be referred to in this regard. It starts with "Baba loved the idea of America." To Hosseini's Baba, "there are only three real men in this world -- America the brash savoir, Britain, and Israel." Not only does Hosseini appear romanticising America but its allies Britain and Israel too.

Amir's Baba "loathed Jimmy Carter" and when Reagan called the Shorwai "the Evil Empire" he bought "a picture of the grinning president giving thumbs up." (In 2003 George W. Bush was the president of America who was also a Republican like Reagan.)

Natasha Walter of The Guardian writes, "Hosseini does not challenge the usual western view of Afghanistan, but he does enrich itů" So it can also be argued that various extra-literary, or put simply political, forces would have thrown their weight behind a native Afghan, albeit the Afghan had not visited Afghanistan in the last two decades, to doctor his success so as to make a powerful impression that Hosseini and his work are true representatives of Afghanistan and that majority of the Afghans think of America the way Hosseini and his characters do.

Had these pro-American, pro-Republican, pro-Britain, pro-Israel elements not been there, it seems Hosseini would have hardly been known outside Northern California. After all, there have been many literary giants, much higher in calibre, not able to sell even a hundred thousand copies (all of their works put together.)

The Kite Runner revolves around the characters, specifically the central character, Amir and war-torn Afghanistan merely forms the background and that too in a few sections only. Hosseini has manoeuvred cleverly because he would have been at a great loss had he tried to portray Afghanistan in the foreground.

Born March 4, 1965, Khaled Hosseini was a son of an official of the Afghan foreign ministry. His father moved the family to Paris in 1976. After the coup of 1978 in Afghanistan, they went to America and sought political asylum in 1980. Hosseini graduated in biology in 1988 and went on to win a doctorate degree in medicine in 1993. A resident of Northern California, he is currently a Goodwill Envoy for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Kite Runner reminds me of Aldous Huxley who writes in his essay Writers and Readers, "In many cases, also, they [books] are written with the aim of satisfying the author's secret wishes, of realising, if only in words, his bovaristic dreams."

In 2007, Hosseini's second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns -- a female counterpart of TKR -- was published. Hosseini seems to be in the same frame of mind here as well. Even a couple of passages are identical in both the novels. Baba of TKR and Jalil Khan of A Thousand Splendid Suns are both wealthy businessmen who impregnate their maids. The two stories mostly revolve around the two mistakes of Baba and Jalil Khan, Hassan and Mariam. Both the novels are centred on characters and the war-torn Afghanistan is shown in the background. But the story of A Thousand Splendid Suns is complex than that of TKR.

After Laila's parents die in a rocket attack, Rasheed, the shoemaker, rescues her and shortly thereafter marries her. She is already carrying the seed of her friend Tariq who had left Afghanistan with his family. Rasheed's first wife, Mariam, is a natural daughter of a wealthy businessman, Jalil Khan. Laila's giving birth to a daughter, Aziza, does not touch Rasheed, who is a typical Pashtun and has no scruples brutalising the two women. Fed up of Rasheed and the war, Laila and Mariam try to flee but are caught and sent back. Later a son, Zalmai, is born to Laila who becomes Rasheed's favourite. He is killed by Mariam with a shovel when she finds him strangling Laila because she has met Tariq in his absence. The passage where Mariam kills Rasheed is probably the most powerful, engaging and riveting piece in both of Hosseini's works. After Rasheed's death, Mariam helps Laila and Tariq to flee to Pakistan. When America invades Afghanistan in 2001, Tariq hopes it would bring peace, harmony and justice. Laila and her family come back in 2003 to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Taken from a poem Kabul by a 17th century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi, the title of Hosseini's second novel is not as apposite as that of his first novel.

Whether Hosseini has served or exploited Afghanistan, his "homeland," it is open to debate. What is beyond debate is that he has earned money and importantly popularity. Talking of popularity, I cannot help going back to Aldous Huxley's Writers and Readers where he says, "The very popularity of an author during a certain period is a reason why he should become unpopular later on."

 

 

The artistic crescent

Al Mansurah formed a nucleus of Islamic culture in the entire Islamic world and particularly in the subcontinent

By Sarwat Ali

History of Islamic Art

By Dr Shahid Ahmad Rajput

Publisher: Sang e Meel Publications, 2009

Pages: 200

Price: Rs 2000

Though Sindh has been part of the Islamic caliphate since the early years of the 8th century, as the cities, towns and routes have been described by the Arab historians and geographers, but no systematic and sustained effort has been made to explore the archaeological and architectural treasures of this area.

Whatever has been written or published about and its ancient metropolis like Bhambhore, Mansura and Mehfuza has been sketchy without an in-depth study. Since Al Mansurah also known as Brahminabad was the first Arab city to be established in the Indian subcontinent between 728-37 by the Umayyad governor Amr Thafaqi, history of Islamic art may have touched a deeper level if the many hidden treasures in the city had been brought into the limelight.

Based on the hypothesis that this city formed a nucleus of Islamic culture in the entire Islamic world and particularly in the subcontinent, it was proposed by Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani to take up analytical study of aspects of the cultural life of Al Mansurah. This has formed the basic framework of this book by Shahid Ahmad Rajput.

AF Ballasis had carried out the primary excavations at the site in 1854 and these treasures were made part of the collection of the British Museum. Excavations were continued by Henry Cousens in 1895 and since 1966 by the Department of Archaeology, Pakistan. These holdings at the British Museum have been studied and catalogued by Shahid Ahmad Rajput along with the Ahmed Nabi Khan and Robert Knox on the encouragement of Dr Dani.

The surface finds made in the earlier excavations included glazed pottery of the Ummayad Period, tin glazed pottery of the Abbasid Dynasty, luster painted pottery of Abbasid and Fatimid periods, slip painted pottery of Samanid period, Sgrafiatto warers of Egypt, Iraq and Persia, shang sha stoneware of Southern China, unglazed pottery and metal work of Al Mansurah, heads of copper coins and coin moulds, bronze ornaments, glassware, cut and rock crystal, ivory objects, crystals, jewellery and seals.

Attempts made in the19th century were mostly surface finds and defining the artefacts was limited to physical descriptions of which pottery made a principle element. No history of the origin or the development of the Islamic pottery or other artefacts has been forwarded by them mainly due to the reason that that the excavations at Al Mansurah were the earliest attempts on the subject.  The earlier British excavators were in no position to throw much light on the history of Islamic ceramics found from Al Mansurah

The pottery of Al Mansurah had not been given importance resulting in the general impression that the pottery tradition did not exist in the subcontinent. Though Al Mansurah alone has yielded a number of pieces of glazed pottery made in the 8th century, the publications on the Islamic ceramics after the first systematic excavations at Samarra marked the beginning of history of ceramics during the first quarter of the 20th century by the German archaeologists. In this book, there is a comparative study of the excavations and objects discovered from other Islamic sites with proper professional cataloguing of the finds already in the British museum to fill the historical gaps in the early history of the Islamic history.

The materials and objects that have been found in the recent excavations can be classified as coins, beads, iron objects, copper objects, medical objects, oil lamps, pottery. The doorknockers, traditional kilns, glaze and its application, the materials like clay, stone, paste, glazes, techniques of decoration, underglaze and overglaze paintings.

There is also in the beginning of the book a brief history of Sindh and then the history of Al Mansurah itself. What eventually happened to the city/town has been a mystery and it is assumed that an earthquake destroyed it. The date of that earthquake too has been a subject of much debate but no conclusive evidence could be gathered on it. It is also possible that the town lost its importance and slowly decayed in view of the growing importance of other towns like Siwistan or Sehwan due to the growing use of the land routes from the 10th century onwards.

The book is full of details and information about a period that is talked about so much, more in the realm of make belief but rarely in terms of solid evidence or documentation. This may be the first serious attempt at recreating the past based on evidence recovered from the excavations carried out by the Pakistani archaeologists. This land has been home to many civilizations and cultures and the excavations and tangible evidence can surely reflect a more truthful record of the past. The book is replete with illustration of the various objects, which have been unearthed and excavated.

The excavations carried out at Al Mansurah so far cover an area, which is quarter of the total site. The main focus of the archaeologists, the study of architectural remains has proved only various features of the architecture including the Jamia Mosque Dar Al Aramah, industrial and commercial areas round the mosque. Much more remains to be done.

 

A word about letters

 

By Kazy Javed

English fiction by Pakistani writers

The South Asian Journal, which is published from Lahore under the editorship of Imtiaz Alam, has many distinctions. It's the first scholarly quarterly devoted to analytical study of various cultural, economic and political issues related to our corner of the globe which is inhabited by more than one-fifth of humanity.

The journal is the organ of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), an organisation of prominent media persons across the South Asia region working for the promotion of peace and cooperation in our God-forsaken region.

The South Asian Journal has completed six years of its regular publication which, in the backdrop of conflict-riddin South Asia, is no mean achievement. It has successfully provided an intellectual platform to journalists and scholars to share their contributions and play a role in developing regional consciousness.

The current 24th issue of the journal carries an article of special interest to the literati. Written by writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie, it is on the subject of English language fiction penned by Pakistan's female writers.

In her aforementioned article Muneeza Shamsie writes that English is the language that Pakistanis have acquired because of colonial encounter, and women's writing in English forges a unique voice between the largely patriarchal structures of English literature and the mainstream literature of Pakistan, Bapsi Sidhwa, she says, is the first Pakistani fictionist. She is also the first resident Pakistani, regardless of gender, who received international recognition as an English language novelist. Her first novel was published under the title The Crow Eaters in 1979. Her fifth book Water hit the bookstands in 2005.

The other Pakistani women writing English language fiction and discussed in Muneeza Shamsie's article are Rukhsana Ahmad, Sara Suleri, Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan, Feryal Ali Gauhar, Sarayya Khan, Moni Mohsin, Shahbano Bilgrami and Shandana Minhas. Muneeza Shamsie believes that Pakistani female writing, as a genre, stands on the brink of an exciting future and has come a long, long way since 1947.

A report on Pakistani fictionists writing in English was also published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. It said that these writers had long been overshadowed by literary giants from neighbouring India, but now they are winning attention and acclaim in the outside world as their country is sinking into violence and chaos.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, the novelist who received a lot of attention at a recent literary festival held in the Indian city of Jaipur, has an explanation. He has been quoted in the report as saying: "Pakistani writers look sexy now because of their country being so much in the news. When I hear of the hottest new Lithuanian writer, my heart doesn't leap. That's prejudice but it's also true that there is a resurgence of writing in Pakistan."

 

The rise of Punjabi poetry

I admire Khaqan Haider Ghazi as a young poet who usually writes in Punjabi but is notably different from most of the Punjabi language poets of his generation because of his modern sensibility and deep awareness of the cultural traditions of Punjab.

Sanjh Publications has recently published his 88-page collection of verse under the title Madhu nal Salah. The poetry that we come across in this thin volume has been composed in continuation of the poetic tradition that was founded by Shah Hussain Lahore in the 16th century and was furthered by Bullah Shah in the early 18th century. Ghazi says that his poems are the songs of the land of five rivers.

Another book of Punjabi verse that I had the opportunity to go through past week was Aathwan Aasmaan. It is the latest book of Dr. Shaukat Ali Qamar who has already written nine collections of Punjabi-language poetry. The late scholar and secretary of the Punjabi Adabi Board Asif Khan introduced me to his poetry in the late 1980s with laudatory remarks and also gave me a copy of his Aakh di peer which was published in 1983.

Shaukat Ali Qamar naw chairs the department of Punjabi language and literature at the Government College University, Faisalabad and is a noted poet, critic and teacher. His 176-page latest volume carries 199 pieces that were composed from 1985 to 2007. The book has been published by the Punjabi Markaz, Lahore.

 

Remembering Waheed Ishrat

With the death of Dr. Waheed Ishrat in the first week of May, we have lost a notable scholar who wrote a number of articles and books on various aspect of Muslim thought. He earned his PhD from the University of the Punjab for his research on the social philosophy of Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim in 1977. He served as assistant editor of the daily Nawa-e-Waqt for many years and later joined Iqbal Academy.

During his association with the Iqbal Academy, Dr. Waheed Ishrat made his mark as an Iqbal scholar. He translated Allama Iqbal's famous book Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam into Urdu. Three or perhaps four Urdu versions of the book were already available in the market. However Dr. Waheed Ishrat's translation is simpler and easier to understand.

He was an active member of the Pakistan Philosophical Congress and contributed many papers to its annual sessions.

After his retirement from the Iqbal Academy in 2003, Dr. Waheed Ishrat joined the Punjab University's Department of Iqbal Studies on the invitation of its Vice-Chancellor Dr. Mujahid Kamran.

He was also a poet but not much of his poetry was brought to light. However, I remember enjoying his poetry during our long evening walks along the banks of the Lahore Canal in University's New Campus many years ago.

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