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Life's Wisdom: From the Works of the Nobel Laureate

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Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel laureate for literature, was born in an old quarter of Cairo in 1911. His study of philosophy at what is now Cairo University greatly influenced his works, as did his wide readings, and his work in the government and in the Cinema Organization. Life's Wisdom is a unique collection of quotations selected from this great author s works, offering philosophical insights on themes such as childhood, youth, love, marriage, war, freedom, death, the supernatural, the afterlife, the soul, immortality, and many other subjects that take us through life s journey. Naguib Mahfouz's works abound with words of wisdom. As Nadine Gordimer states in her foreword to one of his earlier books: "The essence of a writer's being is in the work, not the personality, though the world values things otherwise, and would rather see what the writer looks like on television than read where he or she really is to be found: in the writings." In keeping with Gordimer's comment, Mahfouz's true nature can be found in his writing. The quotations included here offer a broad, yet profound, insight into the writer s philosophy gained through a life's journey of experience and writing.

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Poetry: Reflections & After the Bath

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After reading days of 1908 by Constantin Cavafy
Had I been there then and seen for myself
That young man still and nude on the beach front,
I would not have remembered perhaps but the thrill
Of having seen such faultless beauty
And perhaps I might have recalled
That he did not seek my glance
But only that his eyes rested
On the sea
(as faultless as he . . .)

But Cavafy retained much more
Much more
He had seen the unworthy clothes, cast aside,
the garments of a poor man without work
But for the games of cards he found to play in cafés
For a dollar
For a shilling

“The shabbiness of his clothes was tragical”
and the Poet saw and suffered this as clearly as he saw the sunburnt limbs,
the tossed, uncombed hair,
the faultless beauty.

After the Bath
Bouake - Ivory Coast

Days of tourmoil
her friend in bouaké
is in danger
evening came
and still no news
after her bath
her skin
still flushed
filled the small room with its perfume
she asked, "what is going to happen?"

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Balancing the Prophet

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By Karen Armstrong*

Financial Times - April 27 2007

Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure. During the 12th century, Christians were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims, even though Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy. Our Islamophobia became entwined with our chronic anti-Semitism; Jews and Muslims, the victims of the crusaders, became the shadow self of Europe, the enemies of decent civilisation and the opposite of ”us”.

Our suspicion of Islam is alive and well. Indeed, understandably perhaps, it has hardened as a result of terrorist atrocities apparently committed in its name. Yet despite the religious rhetoric, these terrorists are motivated by politics rather than religion. Like ”fundamentalists” in other traditions, their ideology is deliberately and defiantly unorthodox. Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency.

The criminal activities of terrorists have given the old western prejudice a new lease of life. People often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad, are reluctant to put his life in its historical perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian traditions lack the flaws they
attribute to Islam. This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion. He is a hero of the American right and author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.

The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ”Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one.”

Islam has a far better record than either Christianity or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim Spain, relations between the three religions of Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe. The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from residing in Jerusalem, but
when Caliph Umar conquered the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer doesn’t refer to this. Jewish-Muslim relations certainly have declined as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries of peaceful
and often positive co-existence. When discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an ”awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.

People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ”prove” to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.

Eliot Weinberger is a poet whose interest in Islam began at the time of the first Gulf war. His slim volume, Muhammad, is also a selective anthology about the Prophet. His avowed aim is to ”give a small sense of the awe surrounding this historical and sacred figure, at a time of the
demonisation of the Muslim world in much of the media”. Many of the passages he quotes are indeed mystical and beautiful, but others are likely to confirm some readers in their prejudice. Without knowing their provenance, how can we respond to such statements as ”He said that he who plays chess is like one who has dyed his hand in the blood of a pig” or ”Filling the stomach with pus is better than stuffing the brain with poetry”?

It is difficult to see how selecting only these dubious traditions as examples could advance mutual understanding. The second section of this anthology is devoted to anecdotes about Muhammad’s wives that smack of prurient gossip. Western readers need historical perspective to understand the significance of the Prophet’s domestic arrangements, his respect for his wives, and the free and forthright way in which they approached him. Equally eccentric are the stories cited by Weinberger to describe miracles attributed to the Prophet: the Koran makes it clear that Muhammad did not perform miracles and insists that he was an ordinary human being, with no divine powers.

It is, therefore, a relief to turn to Barnaby Rogerson’s more balanced and nuanced account of early Muslim history in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. Rogerson is a travel writer by trade; his explanation of the Sunni/Shia divide is theologically simplistic, but his account of the
rashidun, the first four ”rightly guided” caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, is historically sound, accessible and clears up many western misconceptions about this crucial period.

Rogerson makes it clear, for example, that the wars of conquest and the establishment of the Islamic empire after Muhammad’s death were not inspired by religious ideology but by pragmatic politics. The idea that Islam should conquer the world was alien to the Koran and there was no
attempt to convert Jews or Christians. Islam was for the Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, as Judaism was for the descendants of Isaac and Christianity for the followers of Jesus.

Rogerson also shows that Muslim tradition is multi-layered and many-faceted. The early historians regularly gave two or three variant accounts of an incident in the life of the Prophet; readers were expected to make up their own minds.

Similarly, there are at least four contrasting and sometimes conflicting versions of the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament the four evangelists interpret the life of Jesus quite differently. To choose one tradition and ignore the rest - as Weinberger and Spencer do - is distorting.

Professor Tariq Ramadan has studied Islam at the University of Geneva and al-Azhar University in Cairo and is currently senior research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The Messenger is easily the most scholarly and knowledgeable of these four biographies of Muhammad, but it is
also practical and relevant, drawing lessons from the Prophet’s life that are crucial for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ramadan makes it clear, for example, that Muhammad did not shun non-Muslims as ”unbelievers” but from the beginning co-operated with them in the pursuit of the
common good. Islam was not a closed system at variance with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that relations between the different groups must be egalitarian. Even warfare must not obviate the primary duty of justice and respect.

When the Muslims were forced to leave Mecca because they were persecuted by the Meccan establishment, Ramadan shows, they had to adapt to the alien customs of their new home in Medina, where, for example, women enjoyed more freedom than in Mecca. The hijrah (”migration”) was a test of intelligence; the emigrants had to recognise that some of their customs were cultural rather than Islamic, and had to learn foreign practices.

Ramadan also makes it clear that, in the Koran, jihad was not synonymous with ”holy war”. The verb jihada should rather be translated: ”making an effort”. The first time the word is used in the Koran, it signified a ”resistance to oppression” (25:26) that was intellectual and spiritual rather than militant. Muslims were required to oppose the lies and terror of those who were motivated solely by self-interest; they had to be patient and enduring. Only after the hijrah, when they encountered the enmity of Mecca, did the word jihad take connotations of self-defence and armed resistance in the face of military aggression. Even so, in mainstream Muslim tradition, the greatest jihad was not warfare but reform of one’s own society and heart; as Muhammad explained to one of his companions, the true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.

The Koran teaches that, while warfare must be avoided whenever possible, it is sometimes necessary to resist humanity’s natural propensity to expansionism and oppression, which all too often seeks to obliterate the diversity and religious pluralism that is God’s will. If they do wage
war, Muslims must behave ethically. ”Do not kill women, children and old people,” Abu Bakr, the first caliph, commanded his troops. ”Do not commit treacherous actions. Do not burn houses and cornfields.” Muslims must be especially careful not to destroy monasteries where Christian
monks served God in prayer.

Ramadan could have devoted more time to such contentious issues as the veiling of women, polygamy and Muhammad’s treatment of some (though by no means all) of the Jewish tribes of Medina. But his account restores the balance that is so often lacking in western narratives. Muhammad was not a belligerent warrior. Ramadan shows that he constantly emphasized the importance of ”gentleness” (ar-rafiq), ”tolerance” (al-ana) and clemency (al-hilm).

It will be interesting to see how The Messenger is received. Ramadan is clearly addressing issues that inspire some Muslims to distort their religion. Western people often complain that they never hear from ”moderate” Muslims, but when such Muslims do speak out they are frequently dismissed as apologists and hagiographers. Until we all learn to approach one another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace.

* Karen Armstrong is the author of ”Muhammad: Prophet For Our Time”.

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Soul Mountain by Nobel winner Gao Xingjian

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The following are excerpts from "Soul Mountain," Gao Xingjian's novel based on his travels in central China in the 1980s and translated from Chinese by Mabel Lee. The novel was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding the Chinese author the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature.


The rich, the famous, and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn't love the home of their ancestors? They don't intend to stay, so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. When friends meet they don't just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, but rather they shout the person's name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common, but not for women. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can't help taking a second look.

* * * * *

In the North, it is already late autumn but the summer heat hasn't completely subsided. Before sunset, it is still quite hot in the sun and sweat starts running down your back. You leave the station to have a look around. There's nothing nearby except for the little inn across the road. It's an old-style two-story building with a wooden shop front. Upstairs the floorboards creak badly but worse still is the grime on the pillow and sleeping mat. If you wanted to have a wash, you'd have to wait 'til it was dark to strip off and pour water over yourself in the damp and narrow courtyard. This is a stopover for the village peddlers and craftsmen.

* * * * *

At the time every city along the way had gone mad. Walls, factories, high voltage poles, man-made constructions of any kind, were all covered in slogans swearing to defend with one's life, to overthrow, to smash, and to fight a bloody war to the end. As this train roared along there was the singing of battle songs on the broadcast system on board and on the loudspeakers outside in every place the train passed. [source:]

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Book Notes: Stories of Hans Christian Andersen

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Summary: Literary essay about Andersen's whimsical sense of storytelling. But was he better than Kafka?

A writer like Hans Christian Andersen changes the fundamental question "what is literature?" into that of "what is a story?" Of course, all of us claim to appreciate good storytelling. But after the English courses, MLA conferences and controversies about canon, the learned reader develops a preference for the meaty stuff. Simplicity is fine, but complexity is better. A good story is not enough. Great works have to be more than just great stories.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen--Enjoying the childish things

Andersen's great contribution to literature is recognizing how little is needed to produce a story and how little a great story really needs to say. Andersen seems capable of turning anything into a story. One story relates the dialogue between an ancient tree and a day old fly. Another images the private thoughts of a dying match girl . One of my favorites, "Top and the Ball " tells of a chance meeting and spurned friendship between two toys in a drawer. The amazing thing about Andersen's stories is that they seem made up at the spur of the moment. (Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who merely collected popular folk tales, Hans Christian Andersen really did make up most of his stories!). I can imagine Andersen at his desk deciding to write a story with a top and a ball, then embellishing it with personalities and a romantic situation. The success of these minimalist stories derives not from plot development but the wit and snappy dialogue. Other stories belonging to this form ( animal fables of Phaedrus, Buddhist jatakas , Krylov's fables and Kafka's anti-fables) require little more than a paragraph to describe the consequences of greed or deception. Phaedrus" fable of the wolf who devises ridiculous pretexts for attacking the sheep hardly contains suspense or development or denouement; it is less than a hundred words long. The function of this miniature form is to uncover motives, give each side a parting shot before one gobbles the other.

Andersen and Kafka embody the two poles of imaginative writing. Andersen has a natural mastery of story forms and a perfect dramatic sense. He churns out stories without really caring if its elements are hackneyed or contrived. Everything is spontaneous and done in good fun; if it works, the story glides a foot off the ground; if it doesn't, the story is still readable, but empty calories for the reader. Andersen chases after magic, love and laughter; if beauty and insight happen to tag along, so much the better. But if they don't, it's not going to spoil the show.

Andersen is a sloppy writer, but Kafka attends to every detail. Andersen could care less about his world making sense. Kafka will do anything to make the absurd seem perfectly sensible. Andersen, however melancholy, avoids dwelling on an event or situation and focuses on changing with it; if the ugly duckling spent the whole time pondering his own ugliness in a mirror, there would be no change, no possibility of transformation. For Andersen it is the distracting external world that makes a final epiphany possible. Kafka is the master of stasis and self-absorption; for a glacier, even a single inch of movement is of terrifying significance.

The beautiful but unsettling "Little Mermaid" contains one of Andersen's most Kafkaesque endings. Forget the Disney version; it is completely different. One commentator takes the didacticism at face-value; he writes:

The purpose of the romance is to get the children involved in the fate of someone beside themselves. After the mermaid makes her selfless decision and receives the old choice of rewards for not being good , the last paragraph puts responsibility for her fate and others into the hands of the reader, teaching us that our most personal actions have an effect beyond us, and that whether we are good or bad is material not merely to the state of our own soul and happiness but to people we don't even know and will never see.

The analysis of the ending is exactly right. But it misses the point. It overlooks the dramatic value of such a narrative rupture. The ending changes the terms of the whole discussion. It surprises in a convincing way. It widens the scope of possibilities and eliminates the dichotomy between the two choices open to the little mermaid.

Every writer has to choose between giving a story a good ending or a bad one. It is a terrifying choice sometimes. A reader could potentially absorb the story's perspective and values. If Andersen gave his story the upbeat Disney ending, he would be extolling self-sacrifice and expressing a faith that love triumphs over everything. If he chose the tragic ending, he would be crushing love's illusions and comparing love to the sharp knives that wound the mermaid's delicate feet.

The nobility of giving up one's life for the sake of love has been one of fiction's most enduring messages. It is also one of fiction's most dangerous and self-deceiving. Andersen's solution is to create a magic that neither repudiates the romantic feelings nor affirms them. This solution acknowledges that the conflict is irresolvable, that a good or bad ending would be equally unrealistic. The jolting and otherworldly end of this story is reminiscent of Sophocles' "Philoctetes," where a demigod's intervention keeps the Greeks from attacking a single virtuous citizen.

Instead of killing the mermaid, Andersen allows her to be transformed into a new type of species. The Little Mermaid records a series of transformations from innocence to the yearning for incarnation to the yearning to transcend yearning itself. The transformed mermaid is told by the daughters of the air:

A mermaid has no immortal soul and can never have one unless she wins the love of a mortal. Eternity, for her, depends on a power outside her. Neither have the daughters of the air an everlasting soul, but by good deeds they can shape one for themselves. We shall fly to the hot countries, where the stifling air of pestilence means death to mankind; we shall bring them cool breezes. We shall scatter the fragrance of flowers through the air and send them comfort and healing. When for three hundred years we have striven to do the good we can, then we shall win an immortal soul and have a share in mankind's eternal happiness. You, poor little mermaid, have striven for that with all your heart; you have suffered and endured, and you have raised yourself into the world of the spirits of the air. Now, by three hundred years of good deeds, you too can shape for yourself an immortal soul.

This fateful pronouncement permits the possibility of mercy without promising anything. Mercy and redemption is possibly, but ultimately the power to bestow these gifts lies beyond that of individuals.

The ending is thus a tentative affirmation. A century later Kafka would duplicate this same tentativeness and suspension of hope in his enigmatic endings. In "Before the Law," the doorkeeper informs the waiting traveler that the door he guards was meant only for him. In the unwritten last chapter of the "Castle," the castle was to have informed K. on his deathbed that he would be permitted provisional residence in the village while the castle considers his claim to live there. Endings in real life are never simple, and a simply one-dimensional good or bad ending calls into question the legitimacy of the story process itself. A beautiful ending conveys neither finality nor closure but a sense of beginning; it lets us soar above the preceding conflict and see new possibilities for living. It neither paralyzes nor sedates, but invigorates the yearning for the unknown and unexpected. A good ending doesn't resolve a character's problems; it renders them irrelevant.

One Danish critic said that Andersen wrote more self-portraits than Rembrandt ever painted. Almost anyone could see his own portrait in "Ugly Duckling". Who has not been taunted one time or another for being ugly or stupid or different? A duckling who cannot understand the innocence of the taunts has to survive them somehow, even if he years for exoneration. My name once turned up on a list of the "10 Biggest Jerks on Campus"(or something to that effect), a notoriety I later learned to cherish. One moves on. Self-images change. Life becomes so busy and hectic that one forgets to notice the changes in onself. Obsession with one's own inadequacy is a sign one is not fully grown, nor will one ever be. An ugly duckling is a swan afraid to face the mirror. [source:]

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