Reza Aslan is the editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an enormous and impressive anthology of 20th-century Middle Eastern literature.
What made you want to take on this project?
I was interested in telling the story of the modern Middle East from a literary perspective, instead of the usual lens that's used to look at the region—the lens provided by academics and outsiders, colonialists and conquerors. It's an incredibly diverse region with a rich literary history, and I wanted to see how the story of the region sounded when the region spoke for itself.
This had to be an enormous undertaking.
It was a very long and grinding process. Words Without Borders [the online magazine] wanted to put together a collection of literature from "the Muslim world"—everything from Rumi to Pamuk. I disagreed with the notion of "literature from the Muslim world," because there's no such thing as a "Muslim world" and because most of these writers don't think of themselves as Muslim writers, any more than Philip Roth considers himself a Jewish writer. I also wanted to shorten the time scale to the 20th century. I contacted friends and colleagues who are experts in the literature of the region, and together we collected hundreds of individual works. Then I just read for about nine months straight. And as I read, an overarching narrative began forming in my mind. I culled the list down and added a few more pieces, and finally I organized it in a hybrid chronological/geographical way so that it would read as one sustained narrative, from the first page to the last.
Why did you choose to open it up to regions outside the geographical Middle East?
The term "Middle East" was invented by Europeans to describe a region identified not so much by what it had in common with itself than by what it didn't have in common with Europe. So I went out and looked for commonalities among the peoples and cultures of this diverse geographical region and realized that the book needed to represent the Turkish and South Asian view as well, even though many people do not consider these to be part of the Middle East. There is little in common in terms of culture, religion, or language, but they do share a common historical experience; they share a similar historical consciousness, shaped by the experience of colonialism and imperialism and the conflict with the so-called West.
Is this literature Americans need to be reading because of the place of the U.S. in the world now?
I am an avid supporter of global literature—all proceeds for this book support Words Without Borders, which translates and publishes literature from all over the world. Right now we're engaged in two wars in the Middle East, plus a war of ideas with Islamic extremism. At the same time, anti-Muslim sentiment is at unprecedented levels in the U.S., even more than directly after 9/11. So no doubt it is important to understand who and what we're talking about when we talk about the Middle East. Cultural bridges are built through literature and the arts. Those are universal. Israelis and Palestinians who cannot stand each other still read each other's books, watch each other's movies. It is only through the arts that we will ever understand one another.