The Middle East – a rich vein of world literature

Recently published in German, Stefan Weidner's new book issues an invitation to all those who would like to be better acquainted with the literature of the Middle East – a profoundly fascinating journey through the works of Arab, Persian and Turkish authors. By Gerrit Wustmann

By Gerrit Wustmann

Today, whenever people use the term ʺworld literatureʺ, originally coined by Goethe, they usually mean Western literature. Cast a glance at all the “best of” lists and canons, at what is being reviewed in the major newspaper supplements and labelled as ʺworld literatureʺ – and you’d have to use a magnifying glass to find anything that doesn’t come from the European or Anglo-American spheres.

But what would world literature be without Ibn Arabi, without Hafez or Yunus Emre? And what would it be today without great storytellers like Bachtyar Ali, Mahmoud Doulatabadi and Asli Erdogan? It would be poorer, incomplete – lacking the Eastern perspective. A perspective that actually plays far too subordinate a role, even though many books from Arabic, Persian and Turkish are available in translation.

Filling the literary gap

In ʺ1001 Books. The Literatures of the Orientʺ (published in German by Converso), Islamic studies scholar and journalist Stefan Weidner sets out to fill this gap. His book is intended as an introduction to the literature of the ʺIslamicʺ countries in the broadest sense, and an invitation to familiarise ourselves with these literatures. Why? Because they have something to say to us; because they relate to us.

“He who reads books looks out into the world, and not just as far as the fence,” said Goethe, whose West-Eastern Divan is currently being celebrated once again. It is that look beyond the blinkers of literary ʺoccidentationʺ, as Sigrid Loffler called it, that Stefan Weidner celebrates in his book with such great knowledge and insight. He begins with the Koran and works his way up to the present day – and of course, in the process, he covers Goethe’s poetic monument to the classical Persian writer Hafez. The starting point for this, however, seems rather grim.

Cover of Stefan Weidnerˈs "1001 Buch. Die Literaturen des Orients" – 1001 Books. The Literatures of the Orient (published in German by Converso)
Weiter schauen "als bis zum Zaune": Weidners "1001 Buch" ist nicht nur ein optimaler Einstieg für all jene, die sich neue literarische Welten erschließen möchten, sondern auch eine Fundgrube für jene, die mit den "Literaturen des Orients" bereits vertraut sind.

ʺThanks to Goethe, the name Hafez is familiar to most educated people,ʺ writes Stefan Weidner. ʺBut nobody reads him. Instead of actually reading (or even studying!) Hafez and other Middle Eastern poets, a kind of pseudo-reception has set in, with Goethe’s endeavours on the Middle East being used as a fig leaf to cover a lack of interest.ʺ

With his Divan, Goethe has ʺmutated into the patron of a kind of actionism in West-Eastern reconciliation, which is supposed to compensate for the arrogance of not reading, no less than political arroganceʺ. The same is true in reverse, he notes: Goethe is much invoked and glorified in the Middle East, but barely read. 

How is intellectual exchange to work if we aren’t reading each other? There may be plenty of Middle Eastern classics available in both German and English – but translations of contemporary literature are mostly published by small publishers, if you don’t count such notable exceptions as Orhan Pamuk or the above-mentioned Iranian novelist Mahmoud Doulatabadi, and a handful of other names.

Books from small publishing houses have a hard time getting into newspapers and bookshops, and thus into the hands of readers. For people who aren’t already reading these literatures, this makes it all the more difficult to get an overview – something that Weidner’s book sets out to change.

Europeˈs romanticisation of the Orient

But before he embarks on this journey through Eastern libraries, he explores (for those who haven’t already been pulled up short by it) how problematic the term ʺOrientʺ has become, since Edward Said at the latest. He focusses the reader’s attention on the title of his own book, along with its no less problematic allusion to the Thousand and One Nights – a work that occasioned the hopeless and unrealistic romanticisation of the Middle East in 19th-century Europe.

This is a ruse by which he comes to meet the majority of readers where they stand, and suggest a critical investigation of their own perspective: the fundamental tool we all need for engaging with non-Western literature generally.

Over 430 pages, Weidner strolls through books and biographies, history and stories. The lyric poem, a marginalised form in this country, is something to which he gives a lot of space. It is still the most important literary art form in the countries outside the West – it was only at the start of the 20th century that narrative prose slowly began to take root there, after writers had travelled to Europe.

He also addresses the difficulties of translation, in the process providing an insight into the perennially confusing question of how the Koran is interpreted. Within the Islamic world (though some in the ʺWestʺ may struggle to believe it), this is a constant source of controversial debate reaching far beyond the circles of theologians.

Islamic studies scholar and author Stefan Weidner (photo: Stefan Weidner)
Auf 430 Seiten flaniert Weidner durch Bücher und Biografien, durch Geschichte und Geschichten. Der hierzulande marginalisierten Lyrik räumt er viel Raum ein, ist sie doch noch immer die wichtigste literarische Kunstform in den Ländern jenseits des Westens – erst zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts etablierte sich dort langsam die Erzählprosa, nachdem Dichterinnen und Dichter Europa bereist hatten.

Presented in a socio-cultural and political historical context

Apropos of translation: we might see Weidner, with his own versions of verses by the Andalusian poet Ibn Arabi, as part of the tradition of Hammer-Purgstall and Ruckert – wanting to share this literature with others, against all resistance.

And he succeeds in this mission again and again with “1001 Books”. No matter whether it’s a brief review or a more detailed consideration, he makes you want to read these books, taking away the appearance of ʺforeignnessʺ, and pointing out what interesting worlds, worth reading about, can open up if you look further than ʺjust as far as the fenceʺ. And he never loses sight of the bigger picture, weaving in anecdotes and personal encounters with authors, and placing their work in socio-cultural and political-historical contexts.

The work is by no means comprehensive; it can’t be, and doesn’t try to be. Around three quarters of the book is devoted to Weidner’s core area of study, Arabic literature; Persian and Turkish literature are discussed much less extensively, and this is also where some gaps appear. While, for example, Yasar Kemal is given a very superficial treatment, a literary giant like Oguz Atay and his novel of the century “The Disconnected” don’t even feature. And while the Tehran-based author Amir Hassan Cheheltan fills many pages, you do feel the absence of an outstanding female author such as Fariba Vafi, also from Tehran.

But one is inclined to forgive these gaps, since he also explicitly encourages readers – now well-equipped – to explore these literatures for themselves. And thus is Weidnerˈs ʺ1001 Booksʺ not only the perfect introduction for all those who wanting to discover new literary worlds; it is also a treasure trove for those already familiar with the ʺliteratures of the Orientʺ, especially for the tips it provides on publications from boutique publishing houses.

Gerrit Wustmann

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin