Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Hanif Kureishi

Al Jazeera, 19 September, 2009

Riz Khan meets the award-winning novelist and scriptwriter Hanif Kureishi.

Part # 1

Part # 2

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September 21, 2009 Posted by | Interview | Leave a comment

The Kite Runner author back in Afghanistan as a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency

Al Jazeera, 14 September 2009

A bestseller in the book charts worldwide, The Kite Runner was an introduction to Afghanistan for many people. Its author, Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, drew on his childhood experiences of growing up in the capital, Kabul. He is now back in Afghanistan as a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency.

Al Jazeera’s James Bays caught up with him in the city of his birth.

September 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Erasing the borders in “A Map of Home”

Robin Yassin-Kassab*, The Electronic Intifada, 31 August 2009

Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home is a beautifully achieved coming of age novel which follows a clever girl through a war, a domestic battlefield, and repeated forced migrations. For our heroine, these events are aspects of normal everyday life (because everything’s normal when it happens to you), like school, friends, family and shopping. Despite the geographical and cultural particularities of the story, the themes — of awakening sexually, of learning how to love a parent yet firmly say no, and of struggling for independence and a place in the world — are universal, and the book will appeal to all but the most easily shocked readers.

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At the novel’s center is a family. The father, Waheed, is a Palestinian from Jenin exiled to a string of temporary residences. Resentful of his failure to develop a career as a poet, he projects his ambition onto his daughter, about whom Waheed is convincingly self-conflicted: he wants her to be a famous professor, but doesn’t want her to study away from home.

The mother, Fairuza, is a Greek-Egyptian mixture who owns a piano and a prodigiously large backside. Waheed and Fairuza’s fights are frequent and sometimes ugly.

Nidali — the name means “my struggle” — is the product of this complex marriage, a traveling Greek-Egyptian-Palestinian, and born in Boston for good measure. In America, “people would have assumed that Mama was a Latina, and that I, a cracker-looking girl, was her daughter from a union with a gringo, and that would have been that.” But it’s not.

The plot follows Nidali from place to place, the narrative voice seamlessly modulating as she grows from a Persian Gulf schoolgirl to sassy Arab-Texan chica. At first she considers cosmopolitan Kuwait home. This section of the novel delivers situational comedy at its funniest and most delicate, with an added dash of hyperrealism, as it offers closely observed descriptions of everyday, normal life.

For instance, a seven-year-old Nidali wonders who this “people of Ibrahim” her father asks God to bless at prayer time is, so her friend Zainab informs her that the Ibrahims are “a family that throws big barbecues at Eid.” Later, Nidali’s excessively religious cousin Essam comes to stay. He destroys her Wonder Woman (Nidali translates it “Woman of Wonders”) stickers, and when challenged declares that the superhero “is a shameless prostitute.”

Nidali wins a Quran competition and kisses her first boyfriend Fakhr who, like a low-brow version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, writes letters to “presidents, actors, dead singers.” Soon Nidali herself has occasion to write an amusing letter to Saddam Hussein. The occasion is the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Bombs, bodies in the streets, and the mysterious presence of a black cat in the toilet won’t move her father to flee, but a shortage of za’tar will. The family moves through Iraq and Jordan to Egypt, where Nidali begins a new, less naive life chapter. Alexandria is certainly full of life — they arrive during an Ahli-Zamalek football match, men watching dashboard-mounted TVs as they drive — but the family is in extended and uncomfortable transition, until their move to Texas.

The absent home of the novel is of course Palestine, known from maps and snatched glimpses. Nidali remembers her grandmother’s stories, and being strip-searched at the Allenby bridge between Jordan and the West Bank. Beyond that, Palestinian identity is migration — “moving was part of being Palestinian” — and return denied. “I’d never see them again,” becomes a refrain.

It’s also obstruction. In airports, mother, father and child have to stand in different queues. Waheed can’t enter Saudi Arabia with his Jordanian “pity passport.” His wife’s Egyptian passport, and Nidali’s American, won’t work for Saddam’s Iraq. After the liberation, Waheed — because Palestinians were collectively punished for Yasser Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein — is forbidden to return to Kuwait.

There’s a wonderful moment when Nidali erases the borders she’s drawn on her map of Palestine. “I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.” Another advantage of homelessness is that the homeland becomes portable. “Our people carry the homeland in their souls,” says Waheed.

A Map of Home has a cartoon quality, so comparisons with Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis are valid. The novel form, however, provides it with extra dimensions of style and word play, and Jarrar’s writing contains unabashed metaphors reminiscent of Franz Kafka or Andrei Bely. Its exuberance is on display in such lovely sentences as: “Guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood.” When Waheed rushes down a hospital corridor, patients and nurses see only “an enormous moustache with limping legs.” Fairuza’s hair is “a thought balloon hanging above her face.”

The book bulges with translated Arabic phrases, including lots of warm-hearted profanity. People curse each other’s religions, and worse, and exclaim “O eye!” mid-sentence. Hearing some of these expressions defamiliarized in English reminds you just how expressive they are — phrases like, “May God brighten the world for you.” A Map of Home is not just playing with language — it’s about language. Jarrar explores the condition of homelessness and cultural transplantation through the somersaults made by words. In Kuwait, for instance, she reads “an Egyptian comic called Meeky.” This eye for traveling words is reminiscent of Ahmed Alaidy.

As lyrical as Arundhati Roy or Mourid Barghouti, Jarrar’s pacing is tight and her dialogue approaches perfection. With light and loving characterizations that are entirely free of false romance, her tone is wry, sunny, very feminine and very powerful. A Map of Home is addictive reading.

*Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a journalist in Pakistan and an English teacher around the Arab world. His first novel, The Road from Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He blogs on politics, culture, religion and books atqunfuz.com.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | Book Review | | Leave a comment

Leela: A new group on the block

Mustafa Zaman, Star Weekend Magzine, Dhaka, 4 September, 2009

In a mechanised age, the art of making music has become its own antithesis, a profitable enterprise. In the West, popular music is now only a cog in the great wheel of fortune called market economy. At the home front people are making efforts to replicate that ‘achievement’.

It seems that the music for the masses gets easily replaced by the music for the trendy when economy is the only drive. Accordingly, music in the album form are actually being churned out under the authority of predetermined poetics, one which stems from a choreographed convergence of money, editing panels, and the continuous demand for hit numbers. These industrial musical products bear the sign of the pure mechanistic intent, one that meddles with the sounds, sights and visualisations of any creative musician.

Some want to break away from this. And in their attempt to do so most usually try to achieve at least a degree of estrangement from what is the norm by reviving soppy melodies of the past. But Leela is an exception. As a group it banded in 2005 to ‘turn music into praxis’, displaying a strong tendency to make good use of the mileage still left in the songs that rocked this part of the world during the heydays of left activism. Add to that brew the 70s point blank deshi rock one that trashed artsy rendition to embrace a candid vocal style — of which Azam Khan emerged as the lone king.

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Leela, in their attempt to manifest the difference from what is effete and feeble in the face of all kinds of transgressions that marks our time, has produced an album which they call Naiok, hero in literal translation.

Arup Rahi, lead vocal and conceptual guru of the band, readily transposes a new meaning to the word ‘hero’ by redirecting our attention from the urban location to the vast rural expanse, which is Bangladesh. For him the hero resides outside the cosmopolitan din ‘in the midst of the earth-tilling masses.’ His concept calls into question the very possibility of a hero’s existence in the urban, commercial/architectural setting. Both his words and music sets in motion a new understanding of the hero by relocating him/her among the peasant class, whose struggle and cause Rahi lionises and attempts to give voice to. This effort to dispel at least some of the misplaced notions around inorganic ‘heroism’ shapes the tissue and texture of the very first album which Leela has conceived. The conceptual difference bears down on many a track rendering some of the numbers noisy and nonconformist and a few chant-like and devotional.

Being a bard and activist, Rahi has been privileged to be able to pick up a lot of indigenous nuggets from the popular soundscape. Not that he is out to revive the past practices whose influence is gradually in the wane. The experience of giving a good hearing to rural popular music of Bangladesh has informed this album to an extent.

‘If the heavy beat and guitar work that builds the ambience of the album testifies to our affinity to hard rock, most of the tunes clearly links us to the local tradition,’ Rahi points out. Without even deviating much from the vocal style and the tune lifted from traditional songs, the compositional mishmash, intentional as it is, let the band achieve their musical signature.

If the album opens with an apotheosis of the Bengali peasants, inviting the listeners to stand witness to an imaginary sonar kishan, which is also the title of the song, the second number sinks into self-examination using a good bit of raga-tinged pleasantness that recalls Baishnab devotional music. Piasa amaar pathar angey keno jagale hey praan, pravu hey… the line itself harks one back to the days of Baishnab prem-infused (prem equals love and devotion in Baishnab thinking) movement of the 16th century Bengal. That the personalised lyric and the accompanying easy-going music secure a tryst with a new destiny is exactly what makes this song stand out among the 10 songs that make up the album Naiok. Aside from the last two of the numbers — which are Leela’s take on Lalon Fakir, compositions that are heavily fortified by grungy guitar work — the rest of the scores are Leela’s original.

The third number is an attempt at self-deprecation Bengali style, off-hand and untainted. Bondhur premey khaisi go dhara aami the very line puts the middle-class temperance to test. This is where the self-confessional mood meets streetwise language and is manifested through an intentionally pesky voice carefully attending to an indigenous tune a combination many would have flinched away from even at the time of devising.

As for the stotra or hymn-like quality that rules the two temperamentally slow numbers Ami tomaar maajhey jhirjhiriey boitey cheyechee and Yasmin, the firm yet melancholic side of Rahi’s voice gets to work its magic. These two songs carry all the loads of emotions to be able to resonate with the listeners. Consumer demand often robs music off this kind of instinctive quality that goes with the true musical intention. Leela’s Yesmin certainly is a piece that brings out the emotive spirit in its fuller, gutsier dimension.

Most of today’s musical productions are the results of inappropriate manipulation; they sound as if they are nothing but administered harvest. If there is manipulation in Leela’s first attempt, it is mostly informed by an inner necessity.

Their mix carries point-blank delivery and stream of rock where the guitar and the drum unite to assault as well as stimulate the ear. The highpoint of this album is Rahi’s lyrics that attentively put forward some imagery as well as bits and pieces of his mind, which in turn illuminate social realities for all to witness. At times the commonplace and the mundane is Rahi’s ideal vehicle as in Tui ashlee naa, where lines such as Aami kaancha bazarer shera shobjee nia randhee/ Aami chhera moshareer doree thikthak bandhee/ Tui aashlee naa serves to elucidate an aspect of existence that rarely find expression in art. The other side of the spectrum, as explored in the song Yasmin, also provides for a good bit of social/psychic examination. Addressing the perpetrators who molested and killed the little girl from Dinajpur by the same name, the song starts off with a strain of resentment the voice of Rahi’s replacing the voice of the reincarnated Yasmin. A song like this without refrain, without chorus could only sustain the interest of the listener through some engaging utterances –Aamar mormo pira nai, nai shukher abhiman… and Ebar tomar bishoi bolo, naam bolechho mohot kato naam…– which are directed to her male counterparts. For the song writer the reflexive mode suites the purpose, which is to give voice to the voiceless.

The musical experience that awaits one in Naiokdom, is based on a framework where noise, naff voice, breathy vocal skills commingle. In some of the songs noise rises to its pitch point but fails to overwhelm the eardrum as things seem to stay on a single plateau. It could have been groovier. Meaning this bunch of musicians did not pay much attention to the various facets of the musical experience. A smatter of grits could have rescued some of the songs from becoming a high velocity yet banal drone. One also gets the feeling that some polyphonic textures could have been exploited to the band’s advantage. In a couple of songs the dotara that accompanies the guitar does wonders for their style. As for the voice, a little less pitch and more timbre could have been fitting in some of the high-pitched zones in some of the songs.

Yet Leela’s Naiok experience has enough horsepower to throw one out into a new constellation of noise and meaning. If the disparate elements such as the rage of rock and the trembling, pensive voice unite to create its nerve centre, the listeners should have all the reasons to expect more of the same, only in its utmost qualitative variance, from the sound machine and social logic that created it in the first place. The challenge for the group is to make their nervy noise-stream breath life no matter from which direction the group wants to poke fun at or tickle that great emotional giant called life one that also harbours all our sensibilities around love, loss and longing.

Further Resources:

Leela on Facebook

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music | , | Leave a comment