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Book Review by Jeanette Rehnstrom: Tablet & Pen Edited by Reza Aslan (Norton)

Last update - Thursday, June 16, 2011, 11:34 By Metro Éireann

This tour of the literary landscape of the Middle East in the 20th century is a bold challenge with so much territory to cover. Yet despite missing out on one of my personal favourites, Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi, editor Reza Aslan has made a valiant effort, especially in terms of gender equality, in the works chosen for this collection.

Indeed, the open-minded approach satiates my equality demons by offering some authors who deal outright with glaringly problematic issues and stereotypes without getting too one-sided either way.

Aslan has divided his heavy tome into three parts, each prededed with a timeline and a summary of the political climate in the region its selection covers, which is very helpful and a good tool for whetting the interest.

The first part deals with the years 1910 to 1950. Here Aslan looks at Arabic literature from 1910-1920, where even a complete neophyte will recognise the name of Kahlil Gibran; the nationalisation of Turkish literature in the 1920s; Persian writing in the 1930s; and a chapter on 1940s Urdu literature.

The second part covers the years 1950-1980. Aslan gives here an overview of mid-century Arabic literature, covering 1988 Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, the literature that developed in Turkey after Atatürk, the Persian literature rising out the upheavals in Iran, and the Urdu works that developed after Ghandi’s assassination and alongside the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The third and final part of the book looks at the years from 1979 up to the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Aslan here moves the spotlight away from nationalistic issues to the more rapid effects of change that globalisation and the internet are having on these worlds and their written word.

Overall this is a good introduction to the literature of the areas Aslan covers, offering morsels that will surely encourage further reading – that is, as long as publishers take it upon themselves to translate and publish.


Jeanette Rehnstrom is a writer and freelance journalist. More information about her work and the Irish Writers’ Exchange can be found at

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