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Letters to the editor
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 12 - 2005


Two difficulties
In his recent memorial lecture for Edward Said ( Cairo Review of Books November 2005), Professor David Damrosch identifies two difficulties that may lie in wait for the kind of "worldly" criticism practiced by Edward Said and carried forward by the author.
The first difficulty, he writes, is that in attending to "the full variety of the world's literatures and their complex cultural circumstances" we may find ourselves immersed in "global babble," presumably a form of vague superficiality. The second is that if "literary studies should encompass everything from the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts to the latest Tibetan postmodernists," as some specialists in comparative literature have hoped, then this will rule out the possibility of giving "intelligent close readings to so many kinds of writing," traditionally the province of literary criticism, as well as of analysing these works in "their full historical and political context."
Damrosch is undoubtedly correct in implying that no one individual could hope fully to understand both ancient Egyptian and contemporary Tibetan literature: any such project would surely be fated to disaster, and the unhappy scholar concerned would probably resemble Mr Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, carrying out a vain and sterile search for a "key to all mythologies."
However, as Damrosch also points out, interesting results often come about through the meeting of such different traditions, and he gives examples of these later in his lecture. The relationship between different cultural traditions was, of course, a leitmotif of Edward Said's work, particularly regarding the historical relations between different European and Arab traditions. Your readers may be interested to learn that the distinguished Indian economist Amartya Sen has recently entered this sometimes heated field in his latest book The Argumentative Indian (2005), particularly in an essay collected in this volume entitled "Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination."
One might be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to India the "western imagination" today does not run much further than Indian cuisine and the vaguely Indian enthusiasms of pop groups such as "The Beatles". However, as Sen points out external interest in Indian culture has historically been of much greater significance than this, and he identifies three kinds of "approach", the "exoticist," the "magisterial" and the "curatorial". Early British interest tended to be magisterial or curatorial, Sen says, resulting in works such as James Mill's History of British India (1817), later writers being more interested in India's "exotic" appeal.
However, Sen's point is not that western interpretations of India have been incorrect or incomplete, though many of them may have been. Rather, he writes that these interpretations have also fed into the ways in which many Indians today perceive themselves, such that western fascination with Indian "difference" has exaggerated "the non-material and arcane aspects of Indian traditions compared to [their] more rationalistic and analytical elements."
Paradoxically, by insisting on Indian particularism of this type and on the country's supposedly exclusively Hindu identity, today's Hindu nationalists may have joined forces with an "external imaging of India" that links "Mill's imperialist history of India and the Hindu nationalist picturing of India's past" at the expense of the country's true diversity.
If the comparative method of cultural and literary criticism recommended by Professor Damrosch results in analyses as subtle as those pursued by Amartya Sen then it will have more than proved its value.
Ravi Bhalla
New Delhi
India
Nubia remembered
The review by Hala Halim in the October 2005 issue of the Cairo review of Books is a timely piece, written with much flair. The writer has captured the very essence of Nights of Musk. In a nutshell, the myths and legends of ancient pre-inundation Nubia and the contemporary salvaged and relocated Nubian people are inextricably intertwined.
Nubian culture is ancient and rich, and that comes out clearly in the writings of Haggag Hassan Oddoul. The excellent translation by Anthony Calderbank brings out the best of the Nubian writing tradition.
Nubian writing goes back a long way to the epic classic Al-Shamandora, The Mail Boat, by Khalil Qassim -- a saga about life in the Nubia submerged by the consecutive irrigation projects ending with the Aswan High Dam. As Qassim's work shows, for decades the Nubians felt that they can sacrifice their land for the greater good of the country. Today, many younger Nubians feel otherwise. They feel that their homeland was drowned for a country that does not really appreciate their own cultural heritage. Most of the young Nubians cannot even speak their own tongue -- not only have they lost their land, but a unique way of living and their own language. Today, as Nubians try to salvage something of their original cultural heritage now submerged in Lake Nasser, we thank institutions like the American University in Cairo Press for translating Oddoul's work. We Nubians also thank Al-Ahram Weekly for reviewing the book and we hope that AUC Press should publish other Nubian works such as Khalil Qassim's The Mail Boat.
Karim Kuban
Aswan
Egypt
Different worlds
I am a writer and professor of Literature, and my first novel ( The Woman I Left Behind, Curbstone Press, ISBN: 1-931896-22-4) will be out in April 2006. The novel tells the story of a love between a Palestinian student and a young American woman, exploring the difficulties of an intercultural relationship, and providing a glimpse into Palestinian history and culture. Set in Southern California during the first Gulf War with flashback scenes in Jerusalem and Beirut, The Woman I Left Behind reveals the cultural dilemmas that inevitably occur when lovers from different worlds come together.
The novel's two main characters live on the artistic and political fringe of society. Irene is a student activist on the brink of maturity and intellectual independence. Khalid is a charismatic, yet contradictory figure, who has been indelibly scarred by his experiences of deportation, war, and exile. The novel chronicles each character's struggle to overcome the personal and political barriers that divide them.
With its detailed depictions of modern Palestinian history, as well as its colourful cast of supporting characters--from Palestinian feminists to American cyberpunks-- The Woman I Left Behind reiterates the vital connections between politics, the imagination, and the most intimate aspects of our lives.
I am very interested in having some coverage in the Arab world, and will gladly send you the galleys if you are interested.
Thanks so much for your consideration.
Kim Jensen
Maryland
USA
The Cairo Review of Books will gladly look at preview material of upcoming books pertinent to the Arab world.
Editor


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