I have just finished reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley and Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand, two excellent novels that help us oustiders understand the mindsets, cultures, and history of Egypt and Persia respectively. As I have mentioned on numerous occassions previously in this blog, I love learning about other cultures through reading novels by their greatest storytellers (although Maalouf is Lebanese and not Iranian). I highly recommend either of these books as they do a great job of putting the world we live in today into perspective. Here it is:
Samarkand tells the two-fold story of Omar Khayyam who penned the legendary Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (or Manuscript of Samarkand) in the 11th Century, and Benjamin O. Lesage from Annapolis, Maryland who travels to Persia at the turn of the 19th and 20th Century to find the original copy of the Manuscript. In the first part of the story, we see how the struggles in Persia between foreign rule (the Turks), religious and tribal sectarianism, and good old-fashioned political corruption are the legacies of the problems the world faces today in the region. In the second half of the story, we see the conflict that Persia faces when its the traditional politics are confronted by the British and Russian colonial and economic imperialism. Ironically, it is the Americans who offer a solution in the 1910s for democracy, while today the Americans are seen very much as playing the opposite role of the British and Russians.
Meanwhile, in Midaq Alley (as in most of Mahfouz’s works), the reader encounters the entire gambit of Cairo society along with its machisimo, religious qualities and oppression, social oppression, tolerance, and politics. Interestingly enough, I could see a lot of the Spanish temperment in the Arab culture of the Egyptians. In particular, there is scene where one of the female protoganists on the verge of “giving herself” to the man she thinks she loves, and yet
She had no intention of submitting herself to him until she had satisfied her desire to be stubborn and difficult.
All in all, what I have come to realize is that we are all to blame for the problems that the world is now facing. First, in the Arab and Muslim world, we are witnessing the historic internal conflicts of an ongoing civil war between various religious factions and ethnic groups. They are not battling the West. There is no conflict of civilizations, yet internal conflicts within civilizations. Nevertheless, if we look at the map of the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond, we see that we are living the legacy of 19th and 20th Century exploitation and colonialism. The Americans did not create these false barriers and empoverish these people, but the rather the British, French, Belgiums, Italians, Spanish, Germans, Austrians, and Russians. They divided up the world, incorporated companies to own and exploit nations, and drew false boundries. And yet it seems like the world is most enraged with the Americans. And still, the Americans are also to blame.
When Morgan Shuster appears in Samarkand as the Treasurer General of Persia, he does so with the greatest intentions of impartiality and incorruptibility — those values that the American people wish to believe that their government upholds in the international sphere. Sadly, he is conspired against by the Russian Czar and the British so that they may not lose control of their economic interests over Iran with no regards at the cost of the Persians’ freedom and lives.
Isn’t that what the US government appears to be doing today? The US lobbied in favor of the War in Iraq while the French and Russians lobbied just as strong against it — both with economic and political interests in mind. Just like the Russians, who subsequently invaded Persia after Shuster’s slight of diplomatic protocol, or the numerous shahs in Persian history, young soldiers and civilians died so that history could simply repeat itself ad infinitum.
The words that Amin Maalouf attributes to Morgan Shuster reflect who the US was, who the US is becoming to resemble, and the fate of it all:
I came with a very precise mission: to modernize Persia’s finances. These men have called upon us because they have faith in our institutions and the way we handle our affairs. I have no intention of disappointing them. I come from a Christian nation . . . and that means something to me. What image do the Persians have of the Christian nations today? Ultra-Christian England which appropriates their gas and ultra-Christian Russia which imposes its will on them according to the cynical law of the survival of the fittest? . . . What idea do you want them to have of us? In what world are we going to live together? Do we have a choice to offer other than to be our slaves or our enemies? Could they not be our partners and equals? Some of them fortunately continue to believe in us and our values, but how much longer will they be able to muzzle the thousands who liken Europeans to demons?
What will the Persia of tomorrow be like? That depends on how we behave and on the example we offer . . .