Why does the East appeal?
While most Westerners know the official party line on the more hardline elements of Islamic culture, particularly the treatment of women, lurking behind this position is a deeper, more conflicted allure of the poetic sides of the Islamic tradition.
The smell of jasmine and orange blossom. Flutterings behind the carved wooden screen. The community of the hareem. The strong and respectful male society. The family bonds. The call of the muezzin. These things are irresistible, particularly against the backdrop of stained tarmac, Asbos, and George Osborne. But weigh them against the burkha and some of the fruitier Saudi laws, and old George doesn’t seem quite as bad (sort of.)
I speak as someone who knows. I have an irresistible attraction to the Arabic, Islamic countries of the Middle East and particularly Central Asia. One university summer I headed off, in a trio with a friend and my sister, to the delights of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. And I fell in love, with Uzbekistan particularly. I barely know what it is, but I’m hopelessly drawn to the architecture, the culture, the history, the beauty, the refinement, the mystery. To complete my tourist brochure, the other side of the gorgeous Central Asian coin was the forests, mountains, lakes, yurts, horse milk and apricot jam of Kyrgyzstan. The perfect pairing of countries. Kazakhstan? I’ll leave that to Borat.
Central Asia is a liberal liberal Islamic society. They have in my mind got the whole thing right – the community, the architecture, the old men playing chess in the central squares, the cha, the jam – all with happy chirpy women in bright patterned garb. It’s all one bright tapestry (or suzani … ouch) of community (I speak with knowledge of only the surface, God knows I am not advocating Uzbek politics and human rights.) Oh how I loved it. Right, I’ve talked myself into giving you a slideshow now. Settle back for the holiday photos.
I need to stop before this upload gets OUT OF CONTROL.
Point was, before this nostalgia somewhat overtook me, I was surprised to find a celebratory account of a more traditionally structured Arabic culture in recently lauded book The Map of Love. This book raises cultural nostalgia and then rolls around in it. Yes, it’s appropriately post-colonial in its position against the British Occupation of Egypt, but implicitly the lives of Egyptian women of 1907 – segregated, masked, restricted – are viewed as better than those of Egyptian women in 1997. The book rather revelled in the male characters dealing with the hard business of politics and the women watching behind screens in an ever-so-vaguely fetishistic way. The whole book was a game of two halves – the love story of Eastern intrigue and the complicated contemporary Egyptian politics.
Give me a book, a culture and a country that is a complex, multi-layered, murmering WHOLE rather than a split into factions. Now that would be truly irresistible.
ps. I don’t know how many times I have to say it. I cannot deal with books in which characters have multiple names used about them. Cannot deal. It is impossible to follow. Layer that with the names being in an unfamiliar language and I’m lost. Tolstoy did not listen to me and now Soueif. Pah.