Sunday 25 June 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : ...and Backstories...

Sometime in the mid-noughts, this song by Nancy Ajram was released. Nancy comes from Lebanon and is a very popular singer in the Arab world. She started her singing career in the late 90's while she was in her teens, and has sold many millions of records since. She has been the World Music Awards recipient multiple times, mentioned by Oprah as an artiste of note, and has also been the UNICEF ambassador in the ME. By rights she should have totally been part of the A-Z series, I don't know how she never made the cut, very remiss of me! Correcting that now - take a listen -

Finding Bernie

Around the time this song was released, we were relocated to Dubai after eight eventful and memorable years in Bahrain. Much had happened here to make me feel settled. The arrival of my son was the biggest life event of them all, I went back to India for the birth and stayed for a longish time. And realised how much of me felt out of place away from Bahrain even though I was technically ‘at home.’

Therefore, it came as a shock how pleased I was at the news of the new posting. I loved our life in Bahrain, we had each slotted into our individual places. It was weird, this pang of pleasure we were going to a new city, albeit not too far from Bahrain, but vastly different in terms of the looks and the vibes. Dubai had been for all those years our transit hub, we changed for the flight to Kolkata there every time we went back.  We had visited there too a couple times, and I hadn’t liked it much. Even weirder, considering.

Family members back in India were apprehensive, I had to fend off endless concerns - how would the transition work out? what about schools, my work, friendships left behind? why wasn’t I more sad, how could I be so hard hearted? I did see the logic, and my lack of sadness was hard to explain. What’s the point of hankering after permanence in a situation which is known to be exactly its opposite anyways? 

The truth is – once a third-culture kid always a third-culture kid, there is no reformatting. Hard to belong, easy uproot.  An outsider everywhere, a minority. Now hang on, where had I heard that before? :) ‘A stranger everywhere.’ Exactly! Being in Dubai would make little difference to that. Besides, Dubai had grand bookshops! :)

Hello, Dubai

Dubai turned out to be a mixed bag and not quite as much my cuppa as I had hoped for, but in hindsight, that was more me than the city. We lost close family members while living there, my PsIL both passed away within months of each other, I was heartbroken on behalf of my son who was too young at that point to even understand the depth and breadth of his loss. By  some horrid fluke of circumstances, we had to move house almost every year, neighbours moved in and out at similar rates, hardly time to draw a breath or get to know anyone. In short, there was plenty material for my pity party! But the fault, dear Brutus, is never wholly in the stars. Or in the city lights, as the case may be. It is in us. Rather, me. Mea culpa. Anyhoo.

The bookshops, however, were truly grand. Magrudy’s became a favourite haunt, and in October 2005, Richard Branson personally inaugurated the fourth or fifth Virgin Megastore in the ME at a humongous mall five minutes’ drive from where we lived. Ikea was located not too far either, ever-ready with its range of cheap and cheerful bookshelves. Bookwise, paradise.

I had gone to Dubai with this vague agenda of boosting my pretty minimal knowledge of the Middle East and Arab authors/culture, and it was here that I, fresh from the spell of Samarkand, resolutely tracked down Amin Maalouf’s other works, most of them historical fiction, but so convincing in the details of characterisation and setting that the reader clean forgets it's made-up extrapolation – the Rock of Tanios, The Gardens of Light, Leo the African...

And during one of those trips pottering around I came across Bernard Lewis’ The Middle East – and snatched it up on an impulse. I was completely unaware still of the backstory, the concept of Orientalism or Edward Said’s dismissal of Lewis’ whole treatment, or the controversies surrounding Lewis' views. I read the book in snatches over many months, dipping into it as and when I needed or wanted to.

Cherry picking the isms

Being neither a Westerner nor an Arab has the happy advantage of insouciance in situations like this, I owe neither side any particular reverence :) I don’t have to get hot and bothered about any of it, Orientalism, Zionism, cultural imperialism, whatever. I could take it or leave it, no issues. I could also, as is my favourite pastime, cherry pick the bits I liked and thought sensible and discard the rest. 

A common sight in most Middle Eastern cities is the coffee-house, or sometimes the tea house, where at almost any hour of the day you may find men – usually only men – sitting at a table, drinking a cup of coffee or tea, perhaps smoking a cigarette, reading a newspaper, playing a board game, and listening with half an ear to whatever is coming out of the radio or the television installed in the corner…

In the introduction, Lewis goes onto to contrast the changes that have happened to this patron of the coffee house in the Middle East and in Europe, the argument being of course that the changes in Europe have been spontaneous and of internal origin, while those in the Middle East have been imported/ influenced by Europe/Far East and were originally alien to the Middle Easterner – dress, board games, newspapers, eyeglasses… wait a minute, eyeglasses?

If the man in the coffee-house belongs to the educated classes and has ruined his eyesight by reading, he may be wearing eyeglasses, a European invention attested in the Middle East as far back as the fifteenth century…

The eyeglass is certainly a European invention, but how come no mention of Al-Hazen’s work on convex lenses in the 11th century? or of the Indian use of a form of spectacles in medieval or maybe even earlier times. There are theories that the ophthalmological works of Susruta, the ancient Indian surgeon, reached Europe through the Arabs just like ancient Indian mathematics, but there is not even a passing reference to any of this. I was suitably taken aback - sir, your Westcentricity is showing! And I wasn't. After all, it wasn't the first instance I had come across, that had happened at age 13 in my Chemistry textbook where only the Greeks were mentioned as the precursors to the Atomic Theory.

However, arguments, prejudices and politics apart, (Orientalism is a facet of humanism?? Hunh??) it’s a well written, engaging, interesting book. Worth reading so long as it's remembered that history is as reliable as the POV of the one recording/writing it. Whether one agrees with Said or not, Lewis has in-depth knowledge and ‘a most elegant pen.’ In a way, it was lucky that I read The Crusades… and The Middle East close together – because Maalouf and Lewis come from opposite sides of the debate and balance each other out.

And, goodbye!

Our days there were short-lived though. Dubai of the thousand days. We went to India one winter to attend a family wedding, the husband left early to join work, I stayed back for the remainder of the school break.  The son and I got home in the new year, and soon after my husband was posted out. I had got thoroughly reckless with the books and the bookshelves for an expat, and I prepared to give many of them away. 

Aaand with that we're off! As I said in the previous post, summer is a bridge to home leave. I'll be travelling most of July and August, so my posts here will be scheduled till I can get back. I will log in as and when I can though! Meanwhile, those who are celebrating the end of Ramadan Eid, wish you a very happy and blessed festival! And those who are not - have a happy summer/season y'all! Take care.


  1. Happy travelling.
    I always learn so much from your posts - and you open doors and windows for me to explore/educate myself further. Megathanks.

  2. I can't thank you enough for sharing this experience

  3. Reading this for the first time and finding it fascinating. I have several dear friends from Saudi Arabia that I haven't seen in years and I miss hearing about life over there. Voo

  4. Hi Nila - what a fascinating post ... your backstory (some of) ... and in particular the books you recommend - I shall note and at some stage purchase and read ... we absorb so much through blogging - then the learning comes later. I must make time for that too ...

    I'll be keeping the post open to refer back to ... cheers and I do hope your family travels will be very happy for you and your family - enjoy - Hilary

  5. safe travels. I enjoyed this post and I love that the bedrock of all are books. Here, there, and everywhere you go, you move physically and also in the mind.

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  7. Hi, Nila,
    I came here today just to let you know that I have posted in the blog the postcard you sent me from Bahrain, and to thank you again.

    And I read so many news in the post, that I don't know where are you right now! I sent you a postcard to Bahrain, too, but I'm afraid you won't get it. Never mind. I'd like you let me know your new address (when you have one).

    I'll be travelling the most of the summer, too, between three countries. I wish you happy trips!

  8. Thank you all for your good wishes!

    @Eva - thrilled to bits to hear that! Checking out directly after. And I will get back to Bahrain in Aug, and the postcard will be waiting for me - great holiday-end gift! Thank you so much!and happy and safe travels!

  9. Wow I have never read any, they are entering my to-read list for 2017. Thanks for sharing Nilanjana

    Click Here to see what Mrs. Dash Says

    1. Great reads if you like historical fiction :)

  10. Nilanjana...another engaging post! Nancy Ajram was my favourite too! Her voice has the softness of the Arabian sand! Mention of Margudy's made me nostalgic too! Books when read from a third persons perspective always fetches wisdom that is devoid of all controversies, isnt it?
    Loved reading every bit of the article!
    Anagha From Team MocktailMommies

    1. Both Nancy and Magrudy's are gems in their own way...