‘Rushdie was rebuked not for writing about Islam, but for having such views on Islam though he is a Muslim himself’

“What bothers censorship is the representation of reality, and not reality itself,” Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, who writes in French, said at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday.

“Sometimes, I am frightened at fiction as it seems more dangerous than reality. In the case of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie was not reproached for writing about Islam; he was reproached because being a Muslim, he was not supposed to have had such views about Islam. Similarly, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose shows the enemy of religion is laughing,” Mr. Jelloun said at a session called ‘Maps of Love and Hate: Nationalism and Arab Literature.’

Moderator Jonathan Shainin asked Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author of The Map of Love, whether it was reasonable to think of Arab literature as a category on its own or it was something that came from outside the Arab world. “It is not at all a notion inflicted from outside because there has been Arab literature since pre-Islamic times,” Ms. Soueif replied.

Iranian-American author Reza Aslan further cemented this point, saying: “This is the region that gave birth to the art of writing; it is the cradle of storytelling.”

Asked about Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an anthology of writings from the region, which he had edited, Mr. Aslan said it was a mammoth project aimed at exposing western readers to a different perspective. For “Westerners see the Middle East only through the lens of religion or politics.”

“It is an anthology of literature of the last 100 years (1910-2010) translated from Turkish, Persian, Urdu and Arabic and is put together to read like a single sustained story, one that is written not by academics, but by writers of this region. I compiled thousands of poems and stories and then spent months reading it because I wanted to make sure that the master narrative came out in a natural way,” he said.

It was the poets and writers who gave definition to Arab nationalism, he said.

Mr. Shainin then asked British Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh whether it was still relevant to divide literature in “these regional categories.”

“It would be interesting if people analysed similar themes across writings of different regions, for instance how family is written about in different literatures, rather than categorising literature based on regions,” Ms. Dabbagh said.

Ms. Dabbagh’s first novel Out of It, about tribulations of a single family living in Gaza, was written from “the outside.” How did she feel writing about Gaza without visiting the place? “Well I had been to Gaza in the late 1990s but it was a very brief visit and I gathered very cursory impressions. For my novel, I wrote a fictionalised Gaza based on blogs, researches etc.”

“But writing from the outside was perfectly okay. Kafka wrote about America without ever going there,” she said.

Continuing on the theme of writing from outside, Mr. Jelloun, one of the most celebrated authors of France writing about the Middle East, said the writer was always an exile. “You always write from the outside… the bee that falls in a cup of honey cannot taste the honey until it flies out.”

Mr. Jelloun said Arab nationalism was above all poetic, and the first Arab novel was published in Egypt only in the early 1900s. The reason: the Arab society did not recognise the individual, but only the clan or tribe.

“So it is very difficult to put forward one character as an individual in novel, which also explains the position of women in the Muslim and Arab world. Women are also the victims of society that does not recognise an individual,” he said.

Asked why he did not write in Arabic, he said the only common language for the Arab world was classical Arabic, and he did not write in it for fear of being accused of mistreating the language. “A writer should be allowed to mistreat a language. My homeland is my language, and you are allowed to have several homelands.”

Mr. Shainin said writers in every culture faced the burden of representing that culture to the world. Should a writer be tasked with this burden at all, he asked the panellists. “The job of the writer is to tell a story and nothing gets more in the way of that than writing with an agenda, or an idea. I always tell my students that stories are about people, not events and ideas. The only agenda should be to find the ability to break through all the walls separating nations and cultures,” Mr. Aslan replied.

On censorship, Mr. Jelloun said he was amused by the fact that policemen pretended to read books. “We are taken seriously by the readers and also by the police but I always ask them, what shocks you, a woman being a prostitute or the fact that I am writing about it.”

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