by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Mine is not a list of new releases. I’m moving backwards–a positive move. That is to say, I’m not reading the latest Arab American novel or any among the NYT’s bestsellers.
It’s not that I can’t keep up. (Indeed I can’t.) I’m too occupied with volumes I ignored decades ago. Since the 1970s, I plodded through obligatory tomes by anthropology theorists, Nepal ethnographers, or misinformed, myopic Tibetologists, all in pursuit of academic ‘authority’.
I pored over student papers as well as countless scholarly articles on Himalayan cultural trivia until journalism liberated me. Only to land in a culture of phony political experts: people who after a week in Iraq or who’d never once visited joined the media chorus, first to support US embargo policies to crush Iraq, then to cheer an invasion to ‘liberate’ its people. Parallel to that I dared face the self-perpetuating gang of Zionist writers with its remarkable ability to reinvent Israeli rationale to fit each shift in Middle East existence and intimidate every US leader.
By the time American veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan began writing award-winning memoirs to redefine heroism and fashion history to US needs, I’d grasped the central role of literature in serving American ideals of righteousness and exceptionalism. No made-for-film war books for me.
So, what am I reading? First the work of two remarkable authors, both British, both living to the age of 94, both prodigious writers. It was their recent deaths—Doris Lessing in 2013 and P.D. James in 2014– that signaled how little I knew about either. Lessing I remembered as writer of children caught in dystopian worlds. But I’d never opened her most notable book “The Golden Notebook”. Unprepared as I often am, I launched into it unsure where she would lead me, then slowly awakened to her brilliance and the book’s enduring place in women’s history. The character of “Golden Notebook”’s heroines are now deeply embedded in modern feminist thought. As for mystery writer P.D. James, I’m agreeably working my way through her novels nowadays, pausing to reread passages and ponder her mastery of the English language. I want to study her style, book by 20 book, through all of 2015 (while still pursuing brain science).
Another author I came to belatedly is British biologist Richard Dawkins, best known today for his controversial advocacy of atheism, (and his concomitant loathing of Muslims). I set aside that and pick up Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” first published in 1976! My goodness, how could this anthropologist have missed that? A brilliant idea, doubtless relevant to the advancement of theories in anthropology, the ‘selfish gene’ also led to the concept of ‘meme’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins#Meme). Today ‘meme’ seems to have unraveled itself from Dawkins to simply mean ‘replica’. A pity since the original concept is far more profound. Determined not to shortcut the scientific process via Wikipedia, I struggle through 400 pages to see how Dawkins arrived at his selfish gene.
“The World Is Flat” (2005) by journalist Thomas Friedman is a much easier idea to grasp, so easy that it has defied critical analysis and enjoys an unchallenged place in contemporary economic thought. Still, I ask: what respectable anthropologist can accept this formula? It annoys me that a journalist whose views on the Middle East I dislike so intensely, popularized this brilliant although biased idiom and demonstrates the economic transformation of our economy through the history of digitization and the internet. I await a new edition by someone who’ll demonstrate why Friedman’s 10-year old book is really “The Capitalist World Is Flat”. Friedman’s success is surely tied to his total embrace of the US-led global marketplace.
But I’ve found one thinker closer to my heart—Slavoj Zizek. He writes about everything, somehow applying philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche to the ills, injustices and innovations of our world:—police brutality, pornography of torture, anti-Muslim popularism, perpetuity of racism, Nintendo gaming, and so on. My kind of cultural analyst; I’m starting with his 2008 book “Violence”.
As for books still on my list Rabih Alahmeddine and Laila Lalami have novels for us to celebrate: “An Unnecessary Woman” (http://rabihalameddine.com/) and “The Moor’s Account” (http://lailalalami.com/).
And here’s another closeted Arab American we can boast about. Remember the hit film “Thelma and Louise”? Its scriptwriter is Texas-based Callie Khouri who also directed “Mad Money” and “Nashville”. Yes, Khouri is one of us.