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A Year in Reading: Daniel Torday


I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.

But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.

That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.

So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.

OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.

OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.

OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.

OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.

Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.

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A Year in Reading: Kima Jones


I’ve been making lists since my father died in September. Lists of the things I need to do, lists of the things I need to finish, lists of business expenditures, lists for tax-season preparedness.  When my father was dying in the hospital I read poems to him. The breathing tube prevented him from speaking to me, but he would move his head from side to side or groan or widen his eyes to let me know he was cued into the recitation. Sometimes I wanted to be sure he really liked what I was reading so I would ask, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” That’s when he would smile. We read the Quran, and we read poetry, which is to say, I watched my father die for two weeks and for two weeks I read poems.

I read other books this year. I devoured Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, Renee Simms’s Meet Behind Mars, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration, Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Natalie Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It  Ends. That’s one list. A list.

Then there are the poems I read. They are not many. I read them to my father, and I read them for myself. I read them for strength. I read them because I have faith.

1. Ntozake Shange’s “my father is a retired magician”

In the shower I’d say the few lines I have memorized to myself. It was a kind of affirmation. Maybe the poem was just stuck there, in my head, but saying the words made me feel like my father would never die.
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
2. Surah 93: Ad-Duha (The Daylight, or The Dawn, or The Glorious Morning Light)

This is my favorite surah of the Quran. I get up before fajr and think about my father. I never sleep anymore. I watch the sun come up, I listen to Aretha Franklin’s Rare and Unreleased Recordings. “Fool on the Hill” is a perfect track. I love the way she fades into the last verse of the song. “The fool on the hill/ Sees the sun going down/ And the eyes in his head/ See the world spinning around.”

I think about being an orphan. This new world where this is no father for me.

3. “These Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

My father loved this poem. “What did I know, what/ did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Muslims do not bury their dead in caskets, we do not have wakes or memorials, there are no headstones. We use flat grass markers, a white shroud, oils. We pray, and we leave. I wore a red dress with pink flowers. They were the only flowers there. Muslims don’t bother with adornment.

4. Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”

Like Lee, I see my father everywhere. In paintings, in books, when I slice fruit, little black kittens, fat tabby cats, at Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit, in Arizona reading a Terrance Hayes poem dedicated to Ai. Sometimes when I am hurting, after I’ve cried, I say, “Oh, Hamzah.” I want him to know I’m getting his messages. I want him to know I see.

5. “38” by Layli Long Soldier

The first poem I read after my father died. Evidence that the world continues to turn, but I do not.

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The Damascus Journals

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This is about Damascus, the city where I was born and raised. Today I live in London and my contact with Damascus is painful.

I met a lovely old lady in our community allotment garden a couple of months ago. We had a nice chat about growing plants and growing children. My daughter was running around, her grandchildren too, we talked about the beautiful things in life. And then, in the conversation, I mentioned that I was Syrian. She looked at me and said:

“Oh, you poor girl, I want to hug you and cry.”

It’s important that the memory of a place survives the horror that overcomes it. So I find my Syrian voice in the sweet memories of a grand city.

I woke up that morning and my room was orange. It smelled of heaven. My mother had made apricot jam and poured it into big round silver steel pans, to sit in the sun, on the balcony outside my room. The sun was shining and it was hot. The sun was cooking the jam and infusing the air with its scent.

I was born during apricot jam season. My mother was pregnant and due to give birth any minute. She had bought her usual 20 kilograms of klabi apricots—the only type you should make jam with—from the 30 varieties of apricots in the city.

Meshmosh Klabi are only in season for one or two weeks, at the end of June or beginning of July. When they appear on the markets, you have to sieze your opportunity. They have red cheeks and orange flesh; they flip open and the stone pops out; they are dry and slightly bitter when raw. But when they become jam, they are royalty jam. People say you will never taste a better apricot jam than the one you taste in Damascus.

On the morning of July 3, 1976, my mother deseeded the apricots, piled them up in a large pot, added some sugar and gently brought the pot to a boil. She poured the mix into large shallow pans and took them out into the sun to bask in its heat. She always said that was how they stayed golden bright and didn’t go dark.

The next morning, my mother went into labor and gave birth to a little girl in a city she would learn to love and to leave.

It’s July 2011 and I’m walking the streets of Damascus, my streets; nowhere else in the world have I taken ownership of the streets. The pavement and the dirt, it’s all mine and no one can take it. The air smells of orange blossom and jasmine.  It smells of onions and garlic frying up for lunch in every single house along my way. The air is so dry you can hear yourself breathe.

I decide to go up the mountain of Qasioun. I hail a taxi, a yellow car with a driver wearing a printed shirt, polyester trousers, worn flip flops and a towel around his neck. He has a plastic bottle of water at arm’s reach. All sorts of furry things are dangling in the interior of his car. Flashing “i love you” signs with little red lights, teddy bears, miniature triplet dogs sitting on the dashboard whose heads wiggle with the car’s movement; fuchsia feathers, heart-shaped pillows, a small Quran and prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. By the steering whel is a picture of a belly dancer with a lot of make up and glamorous oriental clothing, and a picture of the driver’s children. The radio is on; it’s the woman with the sensual voice.

It’s a city of contrasts.

I remember walking into a kinky lingerie shop in the old market. It was run by an old pious man. He was selling women’s underwear with zippers and feathers and bright coloured flashing lights. You could clap and one pair of underwear would fall off, top and bottom. A friend of mine bought that one. It actually works. It falls off if you clap. It falls of if you whistle, too.

There are fake birds and fake phones positioned strategically on the tiny pieces of lace, and the old man was explaining the quality of the product. He would tell me, “Ammo, these are very good, trust me, they work.”

How is it possible that a 70-year-old devout Muslim—this big, round, kind man—was advising me on kinky underwear?

The driver of the taxi takes me up to the mountain, Qasioun.

I get out and I look down at my city. It’s hot and dry; a layer of sand and dust covers everything. The city lays at the foot of the mountain, spread out like a coffee stain. And beyond it, nothing. Endless land with nothing on it. The city came to life through the river, Barada. Today, Barada has almost dried out. There is no life without it.

I locate the buildings I know, I locate our home, in the far east of the city on my left. I see flocks of pigeons circling above the roof tops, and the men and women who keep them. Wherever I am today, when I hear pigeons cooing, I feel I am home again. The real home. The first one.

Night falls, the sky turns indigo and the city starts to twinkle from up there. Every green light represents a mosque. There are many, many green lights.

The prayer sounds, Allahu Akbar, God is great, and resonates from as many mosques as I can hear where I am standing. The voices of the Damascus imams are divine. I go into a sort of trance as I hear, even now as I remember. And I am not Muslim.

Everyone relates to the prayer of the imams in Damascus. Foreigners and locals are called alike, some for prayer, some for contemplation, and some just to hear the wave of magic coming through the air. My father studied economics and sat for a Ph.D. in Paris at the Sorbonne. He says that he wrote his whole thesis listening to a set of five tapes of a famous imam chanting the whole Quran.

The timing of those five prayers every day are as meaningful as the call itself. Dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and nightfall. I don’t know if I think that  because I grew up in a place that marks those five moments in a day, or if it’s a natural pattern with which we relate to the world around us, but I always pause.

It’s Friday, and that’s the only day off in the city. Men have brought their food and drink, chairs and mats, shisha pipes, wives and children, and have spread them out along the side of the roads, all the way to the top of the mountain. That road has been planted; it’s the way to the president’s palace, so it is always green and beautiful. People picnic on the side of the road for that reason—for a bit of green and fresh air. The women are veiled. By sunset, there is not one inch of grass free.

Other people, those who can afford it, are in the cafes and restaurants dotted along the top of the mountain and overlooking the city.

I catch a ride down back to the city’s beating heart. I feel so big on my way down, like I have taken it all into myself, this beautiful place and all its grace.

The cactus fruit appears on the streets in August. The prickly pear, or sabbara, as we call it. If you are going home in August after a night out, you have to stop for a few pieces of the fruit.

Vendors set up their stands all over the city. They decorate them with carpets, plants, and lights. They are masters of cleaning, peeling, and offering the fruit free of prickles. The pears are cold and sweet, juicy and so satisfying on a hot night.

I’m on my way home, and I’ve had a few prickly pears. I stop at the glass-blowing factory by the east door of the old city.

The old city of Damascus had a wall surrounding it, and seven access points. I used to live close to Bab Sharki, the eastern door. And there, a small glass factory that you wouldn’t notice walking by works 24/7 and only stops for a week twice a year, for the Eid holidays. The ovens melting the glass mix are never turned off; they would need too much time to reach the high temperature again if they were. So the men with big round cheeks take turns, all day and all night, at making sand glow and form, to become glass. They always have a glass pot of black tea sitting on the oven, and they always offer a small glass to whoever drops in.

They usually won’t talk to me, as I am a woman and they are men. They will kindly welcome me: “Hello sister, welcome,” and that’s it.

The tiles on the floor are a beautiful geometric pattern as is often the case in the old houses of the city. But no matter how rich the house or elaborate the décor, no matter how intricate the floor tiles, there is always one tile that will be misplaced on purpose: perfection is for God.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Our Great Contrarian: On Turkish Humor Writer Aziz Nesin


Turkey’s greatest humor writer, Aziz Nesin, was born on December 20, 1915. When, in 1993, 35 secularist intellectuals were burned to death in the hotel in which they had assembled in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, he stood at the center of the events. Dozens of mainstream papers had accused Nesin of inciting hatred by publishing a Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses months before the attack.

The torching of the hotel was seen as a violent reaction to Nesin’s marginal publishing activities — at least this was what we were instructed to think by the Turkish media. As a 12-year-old, I remember watching images of the Madımak Hotel; from the flames that covered the facade of the hotel, Nesin had emerged rather miraculously, like some kind of supernatural figure, being saved from the flames by the ladder of the fire brigade.

Twenty-three years later, in Istanbul, I wondered how this writer who was born when the Ottoman Empire still existed, had ended up on that ladder, meters away from flames ready to take his life. And I wondered about something else, something I found crucial for my own fragile position as a writer in Turkey: what would Nesin think were he alive in the Turkey of today? This year Turkey had been rocked by a number of chilling developments: a reignited war with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) unsettled life first in eastern Anatolian cities, then in Ankara, finally in Turkey’s touristic heart Istanbul, where bomb attacks have become part of the daily routine. A worsening geopolitical clash with Russia and numerous ISIS bombings intended to further destabilize Turkish society have resulted in the contraction of the national economy and the near collapse of Turkey’s tourism industry, which the government attempted to heal by making major shifts in its foreign policy. And finally a failed coup attempt on July 15, which ended in the deaths of hundreds of people and a momentary new spirit of unity. What would Nesin say about all this?

Serving as a career officer for many years in his 20s, Nesin became the fiercest critic of the state he had spent years to protect with his life. Here was a man of contradictions: A defender of republican reforms and a committed enemy of conservatism, Nesin had kept his diaries in Ottoman script and became a hafız (someone who has memorized The Qur’an) in his childhood. Nesin was the perfect symbol of the cultural crises Turkey experienced throughout the last century. Watching images of military tanks cutting citizens into two on the streets of Ankara, and the bomb attack and crying tourists in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, I wondered if Turkey’s formula for keeping those contradictions in uneasy harmony at home would survive the attacks against the country. With the rise of fear and violence, were we losing the nuance that is the inheritance of our shared history? Nesin’s story was also relevant for other parts of the world. After all, he was a composite of the kind of people a conservative society creates and the kind of person who passionately rebels against that culture.

For a long time Turkey has had a strictly secular regime that has often tipped into authoritarianism as it presides over a largely religious population. It was in this strained cultural atmosphere that Aziz Nesin lived and produced his work. After his death, a new wave of politicians reconfigured Turkey’s public sphere; this new politics, a combination of Islamism with modern economic growth, seemed to be on the verge of unravelling in the eyes of some through the past few years.

In Turkish, Aziz means Saint. Paradoxically it fits perfectly the country’s most famous atheist and stubborn provocateur. In 1993 Nesin started putting out his translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not long ago, in my Istanbul apartment, I picked my copy of Rushdie’s 2012 autobiography Joseph Anton, where the novelist describes Nesin (“newspaper publisher and provocateur”) as an irritating, stubborn old man. Nesin’s Turkish edition of The Satanic Verses had infuriated Rushdie, who had first met him a year before the Satanic Verses controversy “when the Turkish writer was the one in trouble. Harold Pinter invited a group of writers to the Camden Hill Square house to organize a protest because Nesin had been told that Turkey had decided to confiscate his passport.”

Nesin’s troubles were due to his fierce criticism of the secular-nationalist junta that had usurped political power in Turkey. This was ironic, given how he was accused of being a secular-purist in his later life, despite having spent so much of his life fighting against the institution that most vigorously defended that stance. When Nesin started publishing unspecified extracts from The Satanic Verses in Aydınlık, a socialist newspaper, without having any agreement with him, Rushdie was shocked to see how his text was represented in Turkey.

The headline over the excerpts read SALMAN RUSHDIE: THINKER OR CHARLATAN? In the following days there were more extracts, and Nesin’s commentary on those extracts made it clear that he was firmly in the ‘charlatan’ camp. The Wylie Agency wrote to Nesin to tell him that piracy was piracy and, if he had, as he said, fought for the rights of writers for many years, would he be willing to object to Ayatollah Khomeini’s infringement of those rights? Nesin’s reply was as petulant as possible. He printed the agency’s letter in his newspaper, and commented, “Of what concern is Salman Rushdie’s cause to me?” He said he intended to continue publishing, and if Rushdie objected, “you may take us to court.”

Such was Nesin’s talent at getting on people’s nerves: as an iconoclast he continuously got into trouble with iconoclasts. In today’s Turkey he would most probably critique Islamists, secularists, and liberals with equal passion: he was an author who loved making waves. Besides Rushdie, the people Nesin drove crazy with his attitude included Turkish civil servants and prime ministers, generals and figures in the highest echelons of Turkish political power.

Like Christopher Hitchens, Nesin was a great contrarian: fighting authority was his lifeblood. It was, also, something that regularly cost him his freedom. In 1947, Nesin was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a piece he wrote; in 1955 he was imprisoned again, this time for nine months, accused of “organizing a communist plot.” He would most probably get into trouble in the Ergenekon trials in 2008, where around 300 journalists, opposition figures, and military officers were given life sentences for “plotting a secularist coup against the government.”

It was only in 1965, at the age of 50, that Nesin would be allowed to get a passport and travel abroad. He also angered some powerful people from outside Turkey — Queen Elizabeth no less. She had sued the Turkish humorist in court in 1949 for an article where Nesin was accused of degrading the monarch, alongside Iran’s King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and King Farouk of Egypt. A Turkish court accepted Queen Elizabeth’s application via Turkey’s Foreign Office, and Nesin went to prison for six months.

“When I first opened my eyes to this world, I was surrounded by fire,” Nesin writes in his autobiography, describing a scene eerily similar to the hotel fire that was meant to kill him. “My first memory in life is that of crimson colored flames that have covered the black sky entirely.” Nesin’s mother wakes him up and immediately takes and kisses The Qur’an in the room, carrying it with her before rescuing her daughter whom she leads out of the burning house. Such was the importance of the holy text in the Nesin house — and such was the continuous connection it would have with fires in Nesin’s life.

“I was not one bit scared by what had happened; the whole thing remained in my memory as if it was some kind of a nocturnal entertainment, a holiday celebration,” Nesin writes and describes how he spent the night in the graveyard. “It was either 1919 or 1920…My father was not around. He had moved to Anatolia much earlier, leaving us there like that…”

Abdülaziz, Nesin’s father, was a gardener who grew up in one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands, Heybeliada. Young Aziz had a fascinating relationship with this man who had fought in Turkey’s war of independence. Firstly, he owed him his name: born as Mehmet Nusret (the name of his grandfather), Aziz Nesin started using his father’s name when he became a writer, so as to keep away from the wrath of authorities. Secondly, he owed him his education: in order to enroll at Istanbul’s prestigious Darüşşafaka School, which only accepted orphans as students, he had to pretend that the man whose name he chose as his nom de plume, was dead.

One day in July two years ago, I took a ferry to Heybeliada where Nesin had lived before his family moved to Istanbul in 1928. It was a beautiful summer day and the private boat I took from the European neighborhood of Kabataş was filled with Arab tourists, young Turkish couples, pleasure-seeking Americans, and bike lovers who had carried their vehicles with them on board –they seemed like characters from a Nesin story. I had my Nesin books in my tote bag and was happy with the prospect of spending the day at Heybeliada, a great place to party, picnic, and cycle with its deserted beaches and its long, intricate roads that surround the island.

The ferry ride takes an hour and I spent it browsing through Nesin’s reminiscences of his childhood. “The day when the Bosphorus was frozen, the Istanbul pier was covered by towers of ice,” Nesin writes as he remembers the difficulty of commuting between Heybeliada and Istanbul every school day. “I saw icebergs which had the size of a two or three storied apartment block…From the windows of the ferry we watched the icebergs for awhile. Then dusk fell…All the ferries were canceled.” Nesin would take the 5:30 a.m. ferry every day from Heybeliada to Istanbul so as to be on time in Darüşşafaka School where lessons began at 8 a.m. After my arrival there, I walked on Heybeliada’s streets, trying to imagine the young humorist trying to make it to the ferry in time.

Nesin wrote his first play, which was five pages long, in 1922, before the founding of Turkish republic. In 1927, while at high school, he sent letters to publishers about his desire to write a novel, but those dreams were cut short when he lost his mother to tuberculosis. When, subsequently, the Turkish government introduced a “Surname Law” and asked all citizens to pick a surname, he found himself in the curious position of choosing a surname for himself. His surname Nesin came from the question he desired to ask himself throughout his life — Nesin means “What are you?” in Turkish. “The most close-fisted called themselves ‘Generous’ while the most fearful citizens picked the surname ‘Brave’ and the laziest among us became ‘Hardworking,'” he later recalled. This was one of Nesin’s earliest encounters with the absurdities of his country.

In 1937 Nesin became an officer and later confessed to feeling “like a Napoleon…I was among the many Napoleons in the Turkish army…I would conquer the world a few times every day with my red pencil. My Napoleon delusion went on for a few years. But even during my sickness I never became a fascist.” From 1942, he started sending out short stories, and started using the name Aziz Nesin for the first time. By 1945 he was writing for the left-wing newspaper Tan. The next year, he started publishing the satirical magazine Marko Paşa with his novelist friend Sabahattin Ali (Ali’s masterpiece, Madonna in a Fur Coat, was published in English translation by Penguin Classics this year). The wry tone of the paper proved a big success: Turkey’s leading newspaper Cumhuriyet, had a dead serious style and ultra-nationalist editorial line at the time, frequently denouncing dissident figures like the poet Nâzım Hikmet as “enemies of the republic” in Pravda fashion. It sold 30,000 copies every day; Marko Paşa which mocked everything with trademark irreverence, sold 60,000.

Nesin had a particular sense of humor based on a thoroughgoing disregard of authority, which in the 1940s was represented by the secular-republican single-party regime. He loved giving a difficult time to three Ps of Turkey: police, politicians, and the People with a capital p. The first Nesin accused of being ineffective and useless, focused only on stifling freedoms. In his story “I am Sorry” a man shouts non-stop for police to inform them about a crime that is about be committed. “A man is going to be murdered in that building over there,” he informs a police officer who ignores him: “I’m sorry, I can’t interfere in this matter…Because I am a police officer controlling the traffic. If I leave my post, who do you think will look after the traffic muddle?” Another cop turns him down, giving the excuse that his duty is to check the rates of vegetables fixed by the Municipal Corporation. Next, a crime branch officer tells him he only deals with theft cases; another says he is on leave that day. As he loses all hope a man approaches him to say: “If you really want the police to come right to your feet, go to that open space across the road, stand on a soap box and start delivering a forceful speech.” When he gets onto a soap box and utters the words “Fellow countrymen! Isn’t it disgraceful living like this in our own country?” policemen materialize in four corners, hold the man by his collar, and take him away, still paying no attention to the crime that has just been committed nearby. This is not terribly different from what imprisoned journalists have often felt in Turkey: you can publicly threaten people with death and little happens to you, while journalism is frequently considered a crime, often an act of treason.

In a similarly surreal story named “A Unique Surgical Operation,” Nesin shifts his focus to Turkish politicians. He describes scenes from the fictional International Surgical Congress where prominent doctors from 23 countries read scientific papers on various subjects. An American surgeon announces his plans to completely change a person’s fingerprints, while a British surgeon manages to replant a soldier’s severed head on his body, years after his death. Meanwhile a German surgeon collects the surviving organs of dead bodies to convert them into a live human. Finally, on the last day of the congress, a delegate climbs the podium to talk about a recent operation he performed, involving the removal of his patient’s tonsils. The audience, shocked with the simplicity of the invention, mocks the doctor when he tells them: “Do you know who the person was whose tonsils I removed? Worthy friends! Let me tell you that my patient was a journalist.” This is followed by a speech about the lack of freedom in Turkey. “Accordingly, journalists were not allowed to open their mouth at all. As my patient happened to be a journalist, I had no alternative but to approach his diseased tonsils through an opening other than his gagged mouth.” All doctors agree that this is the most unique and difficult surgical operation proposed in the congress. This cynical and absurd tone has proved popular among readers who would be irritated when Nesin’s criticisms started targeting them.

During a panel, a fan asked Nesin whether Turks were very clever as descendants of Nasreddin, the 14-century Sufi and folk hero known for his wit and funny stories. Nesin answered that 60 percent of Turkish people were stupid. He later explained those inflammatory remarks and said the stupidity was connected to “the national diet,” which did not include enough proteins. In interviews with the German press, Nesin was asked whether those comments were not similar to things racist and xenophobic politicians and journalists said about immigrant Turks. But Nesin didn’t take back his words: in old age he became a more passionate contrarian. This would surely give him a difficult time in today’s Turkey, where “condescension” has become a key concept in public debates. It would be easy to instrumentalize instances of Nesin’s condescension towards Turkey’s people, and easily condescend the condescending figure — but then again, Nesin could turn that into comedy as well.

In Heybeliada, I started climbing the steep uphill that starts from the pier and leads to the island’s residential areas, where numerous luxurious mansions and hotels are located. Walking past them I thought of Nesin’s father Abdülaziz, a committed supporter of the Sultan, in whose house Nesin spent his first years. I thought about the Ottoman-loving father and the communist child, and how their relationship so closely resembled contemporary father-son relationships in Turkey.

I wandered around the island, which has a museum devoted to İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second president, under whose single-party rule Nesin suffered intensely, and another for the novelist Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar. When I spotted the offices of Heybeliada Volunteers Organization at the end of the road, I was sure that they could point me toward Nesin’s home. “Aziz Nesin?” the volunteer lady asked, looking as if she heard the name for the first time. “I don’t believe we have anything on him.” When I asked a real estate office about his house, I was told that Orhan Pamuk used to live on Heybeliada but they knew nothing about Nesin.

“No one, including Nesin himself, could find the house he grew up in,” Süleyman Cihangiroğlu tells me a month after my 2015 visit to Heybeliada. “He went to the island many times but just couldn’t locate that house.” We are sitting in the garden of the Nesin Foundation, run by Cihangiroğlu for the last six years. Under the shadow of a long tree, I listen to stories about how Nesin was devastated by the loss of his mother whilst living in Heybeliada. “Nesin was very young when she died of tuberculosis. In his later life, he always tried to find in his love affairs a resemblance of her.”

Cihangiroğlu was born in Şırnak in 1977, four years after the foundation of the Nesin Foundation. He comes from a family of 12 children; one of his elder brothers, a fan of Aziz Nesin, was aware of the existence of the foundation, which Nesin wrote about in special chapters in his books published throughout the 1980s (“The way Nesin gave news about the foundation in his books was a bit like Facebook status updates,” Cihangiroğlu says).

The foundation is in Çatalca, around two hours’ drive from the centre of Istanbul. Founded to educate children in need of help, it accommodates around 40 kids a year. Graduates, still called “Nesin kids,” rarely stop visiting the place after their “graduation,” which occurs when kids achieve financial independence.

Cihangiroğlu first came to the foundation in 1990. “My brother had written a letter to Nesin and asked him to be allowed to stay here. Nesin wrote back, saying that although he seems like a bright kid, he was too old. ‘Bring two of your younger brothers here.'” This would be the first time Cihangiroğlu traveled outside Şırnak, which at the time was at the heart of the conflict between the Turkish state and armed Kurdish militants. While writing this piece, the city again turned into a violent place, with the intensification of the armed conflict between the Turkish army and militants of PKK, leading many to flee their homes and move to western cities.

“I couldn’t sleep the night before the day we traveled here,” Cihangiroğlu remembers. “In my room I drew a straight line from Şırnak to here. I tried to imagine what kind of a journey it would be.” When he arrived one late night, Nesin was not inside, having gone abroad for a book tour. It took Cihangiroğlu only a few hours to get used to living at the foundation. “By the next day, it was as if I had been living here my whole life,” he says.

When I took a walk in the foundation building I was surprised to see how many facilities it contained: a swimming pool, a basketball pitch, a carpentry atelier, large reading rooms with comfy sofas, a huge library that houses thousands of books, and a museum floor filled with Nesin’s personal items. In one room I was startled by the sound of notes. A little boy, who had come inside unannounced, was playing the piano by the wall.

“I used to call him Aziz Dede (Grandfather Aziz),” Cihangiroğlu says. “He was this figure that all the kids really respected and were a bit afraid of. Thanks to him I had a great childhood.”

While growing up, Cihangiroğlu discovered how famous Aziz Nesin was. He read all his books, no mean feat when you consider Nesin wrote more than 100. In the 1980s, after the military coup, Nesin’s tireless defense of human rights and freedom of speech got him into trouble. In his role as the lead campaigner of Aydınlar Dilekçesi (The Intellectuals’ Petition), Nesin had infuriated the generals in 1984. Submitted to the Presidency and the leader of Turkish parliament on May 1984, the petition was entitled “Observations and Demands Concerning the Democratic Order in Turkey.” It started in a stark tone (“Turkey is undergoing one of its heaviest crisis which is yet to come to an end. Without a doubt, all sectors, levels and officials of our society are responsible for this massive crisis”) and highlighted the importance of democracy. “Preserving it formally while clearing it of its contents, is as dangerous as destroying democracy.”

The petition called for an immediate end to torture and demands from the state “to follow legal rules whilst fighting acts of terror.” Signed by 1,300 intellectuals, the text had drawn the fury of President Kenan Evren, who called its signatories “a group of intellectuals who don’t know better” before suing them en masse. “Everyone speaks against Evren and his coup today,” Cihangiroğlu tells me in the garden of the foundation. “But it demanded guts to say these things in the 1980s and Nesin did have guts. Many old leftists who had taken asylum in Europe in 1980s now come to Nesin Foundation and tell us how they had disagreements with Nesin (some of them hated him). ‘Now we respect him for his fight against the dictators; he never left the country like we did!’ they confess.”

After the “Intellectuals’ Petition” and the Satanic Verses controversy, which ended in disaster, Nesin was a tired man. It was during this time that the German journalist Günter Wallraff wanted to put right “the misunderstanding” between Nesin and Rushdie and brought them together. Rushdie described the meeting in detail:

He flew from Biggin Hill to Colongne, and at Günter’s home the great journalist and his wife were loud, jovial and welcoming, and Wallraff insisted they play Ping-Pong at once. Wallraff turned out to be a strong player and won most of the games. Aziz Nesin, a small, stocky, silver-haired man, did not come to the Ping-Pong table. He looked like what he was; a badly shaken man who was also unhappy with the company he was in. He sat in a corner and brooded. This was not promising. In the first formal conversation between them, with Wallraff acting as interpreter, Nesin continued to be as scornful as he had been in Aydınlık.

Wallraff’s attempts at reconciling two secularist writers ended successfully: “in the end Nesin, muttering and grumbling, extended his hand. There was a brief hand clasp followed by an even briefer hug and a photograph in which everyone looked ill at ease and then Wallraff cried, ‘Good! Now we are all friends!’ and took them all for a motorboat ride on the Rhine…Wallraff’s people had filmed the whole event and put together a news item featuring Nesin and himself in which they jointly denounced religious fanaticism and the weakness of the West’s responses to it. In public at least, the rift was healed. Aziz Nesin and he had no further contact, Nesin lived on for two years, until a heart attack bore him away.”

After Nesin’s death in 1995, his mathematician son Ali became the president of the foundation. Cihangiroğlu remembers how all their income had come from sales of Nesin’s books when he was alive; after his death the sales dropped dramatically and Ali Nesin decided to invest all their money in real estate. One third of their income comes from rent, a third from donations, and a third from book sales (they founded Nesin Publications in 2004; the publishing house sold 270,000 copies of Nesin books last year).

On the birthday of Nesin on December 27, 2009, the directorship of the foundation was handed to Cihangiroğlu, who was 32 at the time. “My father had written in his will that one of our kids should run the foundation in the future,” Ali Nesin told him.

Before leaving the foundation, I took a walk in the garden where Nesin’s dream of building a space free from rules and punishments seems to have come true. As I looked at children from different ages sleeping in the shade of trees, I was reminded of Nesin’s perpetual desire to pay his debt to the society he was born in. The state had treated him in the most cruel manner imaginable. And yet, this man of contradictions and surprises always felt that he had to pay his debt to the state, and the people he loved to shock with his views. “You don’t owe me a thing,” Nesin had told Cihangiroğlu shortly before his death. “You owe Socrates and Edison for what they did for humanity. You should be worthy of our species. That is all I ask from you.”

Back in Istanbul I visited DEPO gallery, a former tobacco warehouse, to see their show “A Life Overflowing: Aziz Nesin.” Bringing together letters, diaries, notes, unpublished texts, drawings, cartoons, and objects from Nesin’s archive, this was a meticulously researched show. That it was exhibited in Tophane, one of Istanbul’s most passionately conservative neighborhoods, made it even more interesting.

In November 2015, I talked to the show’s curator Işın Önol, who devoted months to researching Nesin’s legacy. “I had read Nesin’s work before but I didn’t know his writing enough to curate a show about him,” Önol says, before confessing to have assumed that Nesin was a staunch republican.

“I discovered that he was instead a staunch critic of the People’s Republican party.” Önol realized that the problem lied with her own wish to classify and pigeonhole the great humorist. Like many of us living in Turkey, she had forgotten about the nuance; the grey area Nesin had spent his life in. “I was reading his notes about the Yassıada trials, where the conservative prime minister of Turkey Adnan Menderes was tried for treason. I assumed that Nesin would be in support of the mentality that hung Menderes. Instead I saw how he acted like a scientist: he looks at everything from a critical perspective.” Describing Nesin as unorthodox in his desire to have democracy not only for himself but also for others, Önol believes that Nesin was gravely misunderstood as a result of the political convictions of people who supported him.

“Nesin struggled for the freedom of expression of all people, whatever their belief, and whatever cost he would have to pay,” Önol says. The legacy of Nesin showed itself during the first week of the exhibition, when someone threw paint on the exhibition poster outside DEPO, a sign that the thick air of anxiety that surrounded Nesin’s name was still with us.

“It was not a violent act but rather an amateurish one,” Önol muses. “We thought that if the attackers went inside the building and visited the exhibition, they might not have done what they did.” The exhibition team chose not to inform the press about the incident.

“In the past, DEPO Gallery has opened numerous exhibitions which courageously questioned issues like the Kurdish and Armenian question,” Önol tells me. “Despite being located in a sensitive place like Tophane, it was never attacked. And yet we were aware of having this exhibition about a writer whom people wanted to burn alive in Sivas in 1993. Inescapably we felt anxious about what could happen.” After the event, thousands of new visitors flocked to Tophane; the increased interest forced Önol’s team to extend the show.

Nesin’s life was illustrative of the contradictions of Turkey, a young country, in the 21st century. Twenty-one years after his death, as I took the ferry from Heybeliada to Kabataş after another visit to Nesin’s childhood locale, it seemed like the nuance Nesin represented so passionately amidst all those contradictions was worth fighting to preserve. In a public rally in Istanbul in August, secularist republicans and conservatives marched together, as right-wing politicians read poems by the Marxist Nâzım Hikmet, and left-wing leaders voiced conservative sounding views. Nesin’s island was serene and distant from the violence of the July 15 coup attempt and I felt sad to leave it. From my seat in the ferry, the same ferry Turkey’s greatest humorist took to school at 5:30 a.m. everyday, I could see the outlines of Istanbul growing larger and larger, like Nesin’s legacy itself.

Images: The Nesin Foundation, courtesy of the author

Bookjacked: Why We Can’t Have Arabic Books in America

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Saudi writer Abdo Khal’s novel, Tarmi Bi-sharrar (Throwing Sparks), is about the torture and depravity underlying one man’s attempt to create a literal Paradise on earth. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010 — called “the Arabic Booker” — and was subsequently translated into English. Around December 25, 2015, I decided to give a surprise gift of the Arabic version of the novel (not the translation) to a writer friend in New York.

This is the story of the impossible journey I have been on since then, one that hasn’t just ruined the surprise, but also tells us something about the nature of distribution of literature in the world, where Western literature can easily traverse East, but the reverse seems impossible.

The idea for the gift came to me last fall when my writer friend was trying to improve her Arabic by reading Arabic novels and asking people how she might get a hold of Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabic novels in Manhattan. I thought that giving her a surprise copy of Abdo Khal’s book would be a great gift idea and set myself to the task of procuring a copy.

The first thing I did was to check out online bookstores carrying Arabic books. Long story short, most online stores that carry Arabic books really only carry The Quran and Hadith and assorted theological stuff. There is very little there in terms of anything else. When I typed “Abdo Khal” in the search bar of one of the stores marketing itself as a major source of Arabic books, the search gave me the names of Ibn Khaldun (a 14th-century dude), of Khalil Gibran (mid-20th-century dude), and Amr Khaled, lots and lots of Amr Khaled (a major televangelist dude in the Middle East).

I immediately lost all faith in these online bookstores and decided to go straight to Abdo Khal’s publisher, a reputable press called al-Jamal Publications, Beirut/Baghdad. When I searched for the press, however, I couldn’t seem to find a web presence, ending up instead with al-Jamal sanitary ware; al-Jamal jewelry; also a guy named Khalil al-Jamal.

This dead end wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Because of the spelling of al-Jamal, I discovered a promising online bookstore with a similar name, which is described in the press as “Arab Amazon Built on Cash-on-Delivery.” In fact, the website is a plucky little start-up founded by a determined under-30 entrepreneur who has been featured in Forbes for creating a library of 10 million books and his willingness to ship censored books all over the world. “We keep facing trouble because of what we do,” he told Forbes. “But I feel happy when I get people to read or get books.”

“This is who I want to give my money to,” I thought, and quickly found the Arabic version of Abdo Khal’s novel on the Arab Amazon. Not only that, but I bookmarked the website to come back for future book purchases. I considered my future patronage similar to when we decide to buy from independent bookstores. It made me feel good. On the side of the little guy and all that.

Except the Arab Amazon couldn’t process my order. My order kept getting stuck on the payment page due to some kind of postal code error.

I describe the problem below via my Facebook conversation with the website. The ordering problem strikes me as precisely the sort of problem confronted by start-ups, especially start-ups that are trying to process monies from across the world. It is the kind of problem that makes me feel bad for the sheer magnitude of the minutiae that the website’s founder is trying to overcome.
December 25, 2015, 4:18pm — Ali Eteraz:

Hi, I am trying to order Abdo Khal’s book from the United States. Every time I get to checkout it says, “PayPal gateway has rejected request. A match of the Shipping Address City, State, and Postal Code failed (#10736: Shipping Address Invalid City State Postal Code).” I am not sure what that means since the checkout page does not have a place to enter the US Postal Code (Zip Code). Please help.

December 26, 2015 5:05am — Customer Service:

Hello Mr. Ali, We apologize for this inconvenience, we will check the issue with the meant department and will contact you back so please stay tuned. Thank You For Contacting Us.

December 27, 2015 2:33pm — Ali Eteraz:

Thank you. Let me know when I can order.

January 2, 2016, 3:23pm — Ali Eteraz:

I still cannot order. I keep getting the following error. “PayPal gateway has rejected request. A match of the Shipping Address City, State, and Postal Code failed (#10736: Shipping Address Invalid City State Postal Code).” This is strange as there is no place to actually enter the Postal Code. I need to order the Arabic version of Tarmi Bi Sharrar by Abdo Khal. This is urgent. Please assist.

January 2, 2016 3:33pm — Ali Eteraz:

That’s right. Because I could not get a simple order processed, I abandoned the Arab Amazon and went to the original Amazon. For a brief moment I even thanked the stars for Amazon’s hegemony (I promise it is the only time I have thanked a hegemon).

Although Amazon proper didn’t have the Arabic novel in its reserves, it could identify that the book was available through its “alternative buying options” route. Excited by the prospect of my journey coming to an end, I went and paid whatever I was charged, including an exorbitantly high shipping rate. Money is no consequence when you are trying to surprise someone, right?

Little did I realize that I had just been “bookjacked.” What is bookjacking? From what I have been able to understand, there are some “sellers” on Amazon and other online portals that don’t own their own stock; rather they simply take legitimate listings from other booksellers from other websites and then sell those books with inflated prices to people like me. I am not sure if Amazon knows about this problem or turns a blind eye.

Regardless — at the time I made my order via Amazon, I knew nothing about bookjacking. In fact, because of my willingness to pay anything, I was a willing mark.

My order got processed on January 2, 2016, and the expected arrival date for the book was set between January 11 and January 29. I waited for the book to get delivered, and for my friend to send me confirmation of its arrival. Because my surprise doubled as a thank you for something she had done for me last year, I kind of avoided talking to her until the book reached her.

January passed: I didn’t hear from her. February passed: I didn’t hear from her. I started to grow concerned. I tracked the book online, but it said that it was still in-transit. By the beginning of March, I couldn’t believe a book could be in transit that long, because I’ve seen full-length novels get edited faster. I assumed that what happened was that the book got delivered but my friend just didn’t see it.

By this point I was very embarrassed because the only way I could find out if the book had been delivered was to ask my friend. In other words, to figure out the mystery of the missing book, I had to ruin the surprise I had set up.

It took me a few days to muster the courage to ask my friend if she had gotten something from me. She immediately became ashamed because she thought she must have missed something and went rummaging through months of her own mail. In fact, her exact words were, “I will be very embarrassed if I got it and did not realize it was from you.” That’s how we are, us book lovers, we always believe we are responsible for the crimes of others.

As my friend searched her archives, I decided to send an email to the bookjacker. Below is my question and their response. Short version: they lost the order and did not bother telling me.
March 4, 2016 — Ali Eteraz:

Can you confirm if this package [from January 2] was delivered? It still says “shipped” in the dashboard.

March 5, 2016 — Bookjacker:

We are sincerely sorry that you haven’t received your package. It seems to have been lost in transit. As the item is currently unavailable in stock, your order will be now fully refunded. Please allow 2–3 business days for processing. If the package eventually arrives, please contact us so we can reverse the refund or make the arrangements to get the package back.
To assure my friend that she was not responsible for misplacing the book, I shared the above conversation with her and offered the sheepish postscript: “I am going to need to reorder [your gift]. This is the least surprising and bureaucratic gift ever.”

All in all, surprise ruined, months wasted, money that may or may not come back, and disappointment all around.

Of course, the irony is that when I reordered the book, I went right back to Amazon’s “alternative buying options” and ordered from another vendor. This time I paid even more.

In other words, I got bookjacked a second time.

As a book lover, I feel compelled to draw a lesson from my struggle — because, at this point, drawing lessons is all I’ve got left. What I see is that I live in a world where you may need to wait half a year, and be extorted, to get a novel that won the “Arabic Booker.” This is disastrous and shameful, because the flow of books in the other direction is so easy and direct.

In my opinion, the fault for this lies with the following parties. In no particular order:
A. The Western publishing regime, which purports to serve the entire world, but gives preference to English over and above all other languages, as if people in the West do not hunger for stories in other languages. The inability to procure books from other languages probably explains why our translation industry is so small.
B. The Middle Eastern and Asian publishing regimes, which have not invested in people like the Arab Amazon guy, either financially or legally, so they can have the resources to make their technology cutting edge.
C. The Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants in the West, who seem to be interested only in religion and do not have functional institutions that serve art, literature, or music from their lands of origin. How many copies of The Quran and Hadith do we need?
D. ISIS and/or Donald Trump.
As for the once-a-surprise book, the expected time of arrival is between March 31 and April 19.

Of this year, I think.

Surprise Me!