The year more or less begins with something of a pushback at mid-winter dread – when Covid is still a convenient rumor in my mind – with three back-to-back books to understand the world from more than my own tired perspective:
The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio. The memoir’s honesty leaves me discombobulated. As if I were listening to Tiresias. Hardcore and insightful, it keeps me up picturing some of the situations Wolf describes – his returning, for example, to a lesbian bar in San Francisco that he used to frequent as his prior self.
Then another lens, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s not there: A Life in Two Genders. Boylan, like Wolf, tells of feelings probably impossible to know unless you have experienced them first-hand. She is generous in her narrative and extends a hand to show us that ineluctably tortuous path a person takes to finally settle into the skin they should have been born in all along. One night, well after she has made the transformation, she comes out of a bar she has been playing at with her band and is immediately accosted, almost assaulted by the brute that had had his eyes on her all night long.
And so the world turns:
To Saeed Jones and How We Fight for Our Lives. Reading this taut, poetic, sometimes scorching memoir of growing up gay and Black in Texas reminded me of moments from other people’s lives in other parts of the world that I have known. It’s a book I would like to dare and gift to many a young person in the Middle East and North Africa someday.
Next to war:
The Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah has been a part of a larger translation project from Arabic and Persian into English with my co-translator, Maryam Haidari. After translating several love poems of Jarrah from a Beirut-at-war of 1982, I return for another look at his A Boat to Lesbos, where the poet, long in exile, writes of his absence from his nearly ruined city, Damascus:
I wasn’t in Damascus/ I wasn’t on the street/ nor in a shop/ I wasn’t in the station/ nor on a balcony overlooking the train/ I wasn’t in a hurry/ nor slowing down/ I wasn’t in Damascus/ I wasn’t in Damascus.
A Damascene who did stay behind, however, is the novelist Khaled Khalifa. Translated from Arabic, Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work depicts the absurdity of war and its pity as well as any book on the subject. Wars are about checkpoints. Hundreds, thousands of them. They are warts on the skin of the land and they multiply. Just how absurd is the world Khalifa depicts? The corpse of the father who is being transported north of Damascus for burial, according to his last wishes, is stopped some twenty pages into the book because, the checkpoint officer insists, several security agencies in the country are still after the dead man.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes comes next and stays with me a good long while – tagging along from one airport to the next in late Spring and Summer of 2020 when we are told it’s best not to travel but I do anyway and often. A big book. There are several novels of the Vietnam War I can recommend. This one though is one you’ll read if you want to know how it feels to be in the trenches, on patrol, and impossibly scared night and day from one second to the next for weeks and months on end while bogged down with the flotsam of bureaucracy and bravado and America’s never-ending race question each step of the way. It is the Marine story par excellence. A true tour de force of war writing. I expect it is already a classic. If it isn’t, then nothing is a classic.
I order Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War while in the Middle East. Spanning a half century of writing about conflict, starting with the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn does what I like best, drops pretense at objectivity and covers war from many of the less-attended angles. She is a writer to learn from. I have read pieces by the legend here and there over the years, but this here is the book that brings it all together in one volume. In war, there is a choice of two unpleasantnesses, exaggerated noise or exaggerated silence, and neither is desirable. It is impossible to quite understand what she means unless one has experienced it for themselves. Gellhorn gets it. All of it.
As does Edward Girardet in Killing the Cranes. If there is one book to read in order to fathom the kind of destruction the world, as well as the Afghans themselves, wrought on Afghanistan, this is it. Written by a no-nonsense war correspondent who has been there and done that for over thirty years and knows the terrain of conflict without the bluster and the bullshit.
I have no doubt that Gellhorn would have also taken to Azadeh Moaveni’s Guest House for Young Widows. A tour de force of research and journalism shedding light on the many circumstances that give birth to a “terrorist” or the “wife/widow of a terrorist.” The detective work and interviews follow trajectories from neighborhoods as diverse as East London and Frankfurt and Tunis to the eventual theater of horrors that became the Islamic State’s so-called capital in Raqqa, Syria. Moaveni’s ability to see and convey behind the headlines is rare. I was gripped by the lives of these young, idealistic women who became the wives and widows of ISIS. Empathy and humanity accompanies the tough and always thorough investigation. This book should be required reading in many a think tank. The domestic segments that take place in parts of Syria and northern Iraq are particularly poignant – not unlike watching unfold the mini soap operas of the Islamic State.
Continuing with war, later in the summer and early fall I end up having two book events with Maaza Mengiste. The Ethiopian writer’s The Shadow King takes on Mussolini’s devastation of Ethiopia prior to WWII. This capacious, operatic novel is a story of war like few before it. As we watch the slow transformation of our heroine into a warrior, we also slide in and out of the interiors of just about every other character in the novel, the invading Italians among them. Even Emperor Haile Selassie gets his moments. The last battle scene and its immediate aftermath leave one to gasp. I will not forget it.
Nor do I forget Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a signed copy of which I picked up, I think, in 2014 or ’15 at the Miami Book Fair. This book, like so many of my books, ends up in Tehran with me (and is currently on loan to a Colombian journalist friend stationed there). Rereading it five years later (it is that kind of a short story collection; you cannot not return to it) I am taken, again, by its core integrity and the authentic portals the author walks through to convey war in its many orbits and not just the frontlines.
Two dear friends also had books out, in English, at the very cusp of Covid earlier in the year. Amir Ahmadi Arian’s Then the Fish Swallowed Him is a cerebral probe into what happens when a simple bus driver finds himself in the crosshairs of state security after a bus driver’s strike and demonstration in Tehran. The novelist steers, in sparest language, a fine balance in conveying the thoughts of a blue-collar guy who slowly discovers liberation ideology. Some reviews compared the book to 1984. I believe that Ahmadi plays a different, more nuanced set of chords than even the great Orwell.
Dalia Sofer’s A Man of My Time on the other hand is lush in prose and keenly psychological, with insights that make just about any other novel written about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution seem rudimentary. The protagonist is not a victim of the state but a state operator and one-time interrogator who has sophistication, education, and a taste for art and literature. In one of his precise moments of discernment this character, who is problematic as a human being but certainly not pure evil, notes that every other person whose mere sleeve brushed the outside walls of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran had to then go and write a bestselling “poor-me” memoir about it, blaming the Islamic Republic for everything and anything under the sun. Truer words, state interrogator or not, were never said.
In September The Brooklyn Book Fair placed me on a panel with two American writers I would not have discovered otherwise. Andrew Krivak’s The Bear I don’t find to be quite a post-apocalyptic novel, but rather Krivak describes a world beyond time and civilization where a young girl learns to fend on her own. Wondrous in its precise descriptions, the book is a virtual how-to of understanding our earth. There is something quiet, magical, and otherworldly to this book.
Dystopia however is on full display with my other Brooklyn Festival panelist in an imaginary town in California’s Central Valley. In Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot another young female protagonist negotiates, in a voice deeply felt and coming to its own, the bleakness of a parched landscape, a sinister church, and the search for the prodigal mother. This is a very different California (and one I have known intimately in another time and life) than folk can imagine.
Much of my reading life by default revolves around the act of translation. My own translation efforts, the works of friends who are professional translators, and the publishers and journals in Tehran with whom I’m often in consultation, make of the reading act a two-way river where I may end up reading in Persian a work I had read years ago in the original or, more often than not, never read at all. It is a recurring act of serendipity that never fails to bring entire literatures to one of my two sofas:
My friend Farnaz Haeri, a formidable translator with an acute love of the works of Murakami, whom she has already translated in abundance, gives me her Persian rendition of William Trevor’s Elizabeth Alone. “Salar, you must understand, this is the book I needed to translate someday.” Trevor, whose short stories I have always found immaculate, writes in this novel of the inner lives and tribulations of four women in a hospital ward in London. The older I get the more I am drawn to books I know I haven’t the faintest tool to conceive of writing myself.
Two more volumes come my way out of a meeting with a Tehran publisher in October. There are few things as heartbreaking for a writer than to go into a meeting to dissuade an editor from translating and publishing their work in their mother tongue. But I’m there to do just that. We talk shop, censorship and the notion of my preferring for now to stay under the radar and limit myself to essay writing here and not publishing the novels. “But if you ever change your mind…” the publisher says. I want to tell her that I ache for that day; I’m a writer after all. And then for the effort of coming to their office I get a gift of two of their recently translated titles:
In The Punishment, Moroccan-French Tahar Ben Jelloun does not waste time portraying the ruthlessness which the uniform, without accountability, can leash; his portrayal of 1960’s Morocco could just as well be any part of the Middle East/North Africa and swaths of the rest of the world as we write.
I’ll call the Joseph Brodsky volume Less than One, even though the Persian iteration is a collection of various essays that probably both includes and does not include those from a book I devoured in my twenties. The Russian poet says that he does not recall a whole lot from his past. But I think he does. Or I wouldn’t recall the image of his mother cooking in the communal kitchen of an apartment in Leningrad where, among other folk, they also have to share the place with a rather kindly state informer.
Back briefly in New York, during one of our regular Wednesday walks in our treasured Harlem (in what was an unviable summer of Covid), writer and dear friend Emily Raboteau lends me her copy of Mary Gaitskill’s This is Pleasure. I like the Persian word for “Labyrinth”: One Thousand-ins. In the tiny volume – nowhere near novel-length but formatted like one – Gaitskill does not quite turn the Me-Too movement on its head, but, skillfully and perceptively, she sheds a light on its one thousand-ins and unsettling transmutations.
Then I immerse myself in Valeria Luiselli’s The Lost Children Archive. The road trip of a fading marriage is more than enough reason to read any book. There is however an abundance of other contention happening in this remarkable work – the plight of children lost each year trying to make it through the Mexico-US border only the most obvious. This was a novel that made me stop and reconsider my own craft. Luiselli’s digressions are distilled insight, plus activism and fresh architecture. Many instances I had to put the book down after only a third of a page and consider what had just been written, and how it had been written.
In the meantime, in a year of going back and forth, back and forth, between at least two continents otherwise engaged with wave after wave of their own distinctive miseries, I turn to a favorite poet, Nicole Sealey (Ordinary Beast: Poems) for periodic consideration, or recalibration, of the end of things. Had you asked, I could’ve/ told you I’m not doing/ especially well at being alive.
About four months apart, two books of translation that I had ordered find their place into my homes, first in Tehran and then in New York. Each is a gem of prose and a masterwork:
Cervantes’ Don Quixote needs no introduction. I had been waiting for a long overdue reissue of Mohammad Ghazi’s virtuoso translation into Persian. An old English translation I’d read once and shelved a long time ago. And of course I also possess the new translation into English by the excellent Edith Grossman. But it is Ghazi and his sublime rendition that is my go-to every few years. In the way that Borges says Edward Fitzgerald managed to channel the essence of Omar Khayyam from Persian into English, I believe that Ghazi did the same for Cervantes. A one-of-a-kind translation of possibly the greatest novel ever written. I read a few pages, at complete random, on the many nights of Covid insomnia.
Or else I read the Rihla of Ibn Battuta, wherein a Muslim traveler of the Middle Ages sets off from today’s Morocco and clocks some 72000 miles under his belt. The book of travels of Ibn Battuta is astounding in every conceivable way. No other famed traveler of the classical era comes close to his range and breath – Spain, North and East Africa, Anatolia, Persia and the Arab lands, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China, in a period of roughly thirty years after the Mongol invasions. As with the Quixote, I’d been meaning to get a certain masterly translation, Mohammad Ali Movahed’s tour de force from Arabic into Persian. For sheer reading pleasure, Mr. Movahed, a dean of Persian letters whose work on Rumi and Ibn Arabi is never to be equaled, may have (according to Maryam, who knows) even transcended the original.
And if insomnia persists, which it does, there are classics that I keep nearby my brown insomnia sofa in New York and the orange one in Tehran. Season to season these books change, others take their place, but they always return, like the best poems:
Abu Bakr Atiq of Nishapur. The Tafsir of Surabadi. Written in the 5th century of the Islamic era by a fellow Nishapuri of Omar Khayyam, this early Koranic exegesis is one among several towering examples of classical Persian. In the year of Covid, the solace it brings is priceless. For one thing, the knack in matching prose to mood is nothing short of wonder in Surabadi. In the Joseph chapter for example, after young Joseph is thrown into the well by his brothers, the Angel Gabriel appears and keeps Joseph company until help arrives. Potential help comes with the arrival of a caravan seeking water. But Joseph is afraid his brothers will get wind that he’s been rescued and they’ll come after him again. Now then, in a sentence so sweet in Persian as to make the reader ache for a boy thrown into a dark well and pregnant with fear, Joseph pleads with the angel, “O Gabriel, but there is such joy just spending time down here with you!”
Finally, the incomparable Al-Niffari and his Mawaqif & Mukhatabat. The vast ocean that is the Arabic language can do somersaults that arguably no other language can do. And few do it with more intensity and exquisite insanity than this obscure mystic who was born in what constitutes today’s Iraq and died in the Egypt of a thousand years ago. On seeing me, be a bridge in absence over which all things pass without wavering. One day, after two years of us wrestling with God’s words through Al-Niffari, I tell Maryam that it feels like I am losing my mind. “To translate him well,” she replies, “losing our minds is a must.”
The coda to all this takes place mid-summer on either the brown or orange sofas of sleep-deprivation, in the one country or the other. I honestly don’t recall. But this I do recall: a slim volume. Translated from Spanish into Persian. Perhaps via the medium of English.
Here, I re-translate an unforgettable sentence from one of its pages back into English, via the medium of Persian, yet with the book no longer in my possession (so the chances of getting it slightly off is hardly small); nevertheless: We write in order to make a space in ourselves for reading.
A sentence worthy of Al-Niffari.
I remember that I was lying flat on whichever sofa, not even a pillow under my head (something rare) when I came upon this line. I pressed the open book to my forehead then and said out loud, “Yes, yes! That is one reason why we write.”
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