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Friday, 23 March 2012

Review of Saeed Mirza's The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun

Saeed Mirza ko Gussa Kyon Aaata hai?

The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, by Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 247, Rs450.

There is a slow-burning anger in Saeed Mirza. We have seen sparks of it in films such as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aaata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and in television serials such as Nukkad. But the dark disquiet about the underbelly of cosmopolitan India and a weary sympathy for the flotsam and jetsam of humanity tossed out by an unfeeling society is now replaced by something sharper and stronger, something far more tensile. In his new book, we see this new anger: it is seething, simmering, unrelieved by the flashes of dark, sotto voce humour that lit up his cinematic ouvre.

The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun is stylistically and thematically linked to his maiden book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother and shows how Mirza has creatively re-invented the genre of the novel itself. (Both books, incidentally, had stunning covers designed by the talented Moonis Ijlal.) If the first book was a mosaic of memoir, travelogue and script depicting the clash of civilizations, this seeks to expose past injustices and uncover hidden truths. Intersecting narratives, located in different times and places; a host of characters, both real and fictionalised; a fund of stories, some anecdotal others historical – come together to denounce the myth of European hegemony. But the denouement is secondary to Mirza’s real purpose. His primary aim is to expose the willful misreading of history, the deliberate demonizing of Islamic culture and civilization, and the consequent valorization of the west. His anger is directed at those who believe modern learning grew, fully formed, in the crucible of Europe. He invokes a miscellany of sources to demonstrate how, all through the ages, people have fought with each other, traded with each other and also learnt from each other. No learning, Mirza repeats, is possible without help from others. Successive civilizations are building blocks for the great edifice that is modern society. Yet, for 300-odd years the west has ‘set an agenda’ for the rest of the world; it has split the world into dichotomies of its own making: good guys vs. the bad, civilized vs. uncivilized nations, backward vs. modern peoples, colonizers vs. colonized, and so on.

Mirza takes the example of Dante’s The Divine Comedy to make a larger point. Most of us who have had the (dubious) distinction of an English-medium education in a half-way decent school, know of Dante’s iconic work that depicts a journey to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise and the people – real and mythical – that he meets. Yet how many of us would know, or even be willing to accept, that this great work was actually a plagiarized concept and the inspiration for Dante’s seminal work were actually pieces of literature that were written much earlier, literatures that not only did the great Dante Alighieri freely copy from but did not deign to even acknowledge? Mirza unearths ancient texts to prove that the Arabic version of the Prophet’s journey to heaven and hell was translated in the town of Toledo, which was fast emerging as a hub of frenetic translation activities, in the year 1264. Dante embarked upon his The Divine Comedy in 1305; by then King Alfonso of Spain had already had the Book of the Ascent translated into Castilian in 1264 by a Jewish scholar named Abraham of Toledo. A Signor Bonaventura translated it into French and Latin in the same year and it travelled further into Europe through Brunetto Latini, a travelling scholar who, in turn, knew Dante! What did, however, was use this concept – of a guided journey described as a vision or a dream -- but with small significant changes; in the Kitab al-Miraj or The Book of the Ascent, the guide is the angel Gabriel whereas in Dante’s poem, the guide is a poet. What is more, he had the audacity to slip in several derogatory references to the Prophet of Islam who incurred the especial ire of the crusaders.

 The role of translations in the spread of ideas is seldom acknowledged, especially in opening up the Arab world to the west. Mirza traces how Islam entered Europe through Spain at the beginning of the eighth century and how, within 150 years, Europe was privy to the vast knowledge that the Muslims had accumulated. While early European scholars acknowledged this debt, later generations merely appended their name to translated texts and passed them off as original:

‘By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the multicultural roots of the European sciences, mathematics, medicine, literature, poetry and music would begin to be severed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the unshackling and cutting away of the non-European past would be complete and European civilization would only acknowledge its Greek and Roman ancestry and it believed it owed nothing to anybody.’

Drawing upon a reservoir of eclectic and varied reading, Mirza lists the many contributions of Arab scholars, scientists and philosophers. In this complicated tale involving a monk, a moor and a Jewish scholar who met in Toledo to embark upon an ambitious translation project in the year 1265; Rehana and her teacher al-Beruni who lived in Ghazna in the eleventh century; and four American students in the run-up to Obama’s election, Mirza makes a compelling case for ending the conspiracy of silence and willful effacement. Written partly like a racy detective mystery in the whodunit mode and partly as an erudite dip into history, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun ends with a tribute to all those who contributed to the vast body of knowledge that modern man can boast of: to al-Khwarizmi, al-Haytham, ibn Araby, al-Beruni, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, al-Tusi, iIbn Shatir, Ibn Yunis and the countless scholars, poets and scientists from among the ancient Greets, Egyptians, Sumerians, Indians, Persian, and Chinese. He also raises a toast to all those scholars and amateurs who are engaged in scrutinizing the past.

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