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French Version

When bombs speak louder than words

Hanif Kureshi's new book explores the Western-Islamic divide

Hanif Kureishi looks decidedly glum. Sitting in his agent's office in London's fashionable Notting Hill, his hands knotted with solemn purpose, he also looks much older than his author photo showing the imperious visage of a younger and more self-assured writer.

But in the flesh the grizzled Indo-Anglian novelist, playwright and diarist exudes a quieter strength. The pain of decades past is inscribed across his face - especially upon his brow.

It's almost tempting to evoke Dorian Gray here, but that would be churlish.

Offending people has always been a strong suit of Kureishi's. Staid people naturally loathe him for it. Others, however, have pored over his raw and opinionated writing with something approaching enthusiasm. "The Buddha of Suburbia," a novel, acquired a cult following and inspired David Bowie to record an album of the same name, while the screenplay for "My Beautiful Launderette," his first film, clinched an Oscar nomination.

He is also a deft hand when it comes to non-fiction. Last year Kureishi released a thoughtful little memoir, "My Ear at His Heart," and won wide acclaim. The volume explored his relationship with his Indian father, the influence he may have wielded over him, and his own, very personal development into a writer.

It is with not inconsiderable force and eloquence that Kureishi has brought his pen to bear on matters of race, class, liberalism and multiculturalism in contemporary Britain.

His latest work "The Word and the Bomb," is an attempt to divine the roots of Islam and the West's longstanding quarrel. Except that the vast bulk of the material isn't particularly new. Rather its pages comprise a collection of prose - including some fiction - that has been wrought over the last two decades, and closes with two essays on last July's horrific London bombings.

Why is it, the one-time enfant terrible of Brit-lit begins by asking in the opening pages of the book, that the relationship between the West and Islam, particularly political Islam, has "evolved from one of constructive discussion to one of a refusal to engage?" And why do we now find ourselves in this appalling conflagration, where "the bomb speaks louder than the word"?

"At times events can provoke one in a different way," Kureishi says. "After the bombings in July, and after reading and hearing what other people said and wrote, I asked myself: Well, what do I think about this?"

Writing, he says, helps animate that process - it crystallizes one's thoughts.

"It's not as though you've got these things to say and you just write them down. You say, 'I want to think about this.' One of the objects of writing is to find out what I need to say."

Is it a markedly different exercise than composing fiction? Kureishi nods.

"You're more free when you write fiction; you can do anything you want. With non-fiction, you have to think quite hard. It has to stand up in some way, and be sensible. Whereas with a novel, the madder it is, often the better."

"Each different form," he continues, "whether the play, or the novel, or the essay, has its constraints, has its pleasures, and has its difficulties. And that's interesting, because as a writer you want the right amount of difficulty. It's something you look for actually - difficulty."

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, difficulty constantly harried liberals like Kureishi. Civil liberties - including the freedom to speak freely - swiftly came under assault. And several voices in the public sphere, including prominent liberal ones, clamored for less multiculturalism and more "Britishness."

"Let's shut the door, they're saying, and let's not hear anybody else, and let's not stop being English," Kureishi summarizes indignantly. "The whole debate is about what can be said. Are Muslims allowed to say that they hate gays? Are they allowed to say that they hate the West? Are they allowed to say that you should blow people up in response to what went on in Iraq? What are the limits of what can be said? And that to me, as a writer, is obviously fascinating."

The reflections set down in "The Word and the Bomb" first formed in its author's mind when Khomeini howled for the blood of his close friend and mentor, Salman Rushdie. The notorious fatwa, alas, won approval among vast ranks of believers both in Britain and the Muslim world. Copies of "The Satanic Verses" were ritually torched in the streets, and overwhelmingly by people who never read the book. "That," Kureishi vows, "is when the shit started."

It provoked him to write "The Black Album" and "My Son the Fanatic," stories that trace the evolution of alienated Muslim youth in Britain into hot-headed types who seek redemption in Islamist fundamentalism. And, in the process, they are relieved of all confusion. This is precisely what makes them so dangerous. As Deedee Osgood, a character in "The Black Album," explains, "They are devoid of doubt."

The debate over the publication of "The Satanic Verses" was, Kureishi insists, "essentially about whether you have the right to insult other people. It's not whether Salman Rushdie in the Satanic Verses does or does not insult. The question is about the right to insult other people and their deepest beliefs, which may be their religion. "And it seems to me that one has that right. But then of course we get into all sorts of arguments about where Muslims may insult, say gays, or women, or other minorities. What do we say about that? It's a pretty puzzling and difficult debate, and a debate that one will never decide about, one will just keeping going on arguing about."

But it isn't just the fundamentalists that Kureishi chooses to flay. He demands an argument with Western liberals too.

There is a failure, on their part, to even begin to conceive what it is that drives these young Muslims into the wide, enveloping arms of fanaticism. Western citizens - who inhabit a largely liberal and religion-free world - fail to grasp, according to Kureishi, "what it is to burn with a sense of injustice and oppression, and what it is to give our lives for a cause, to be so desperate and earnest. We think about these acts mad, random or criminal, rather than as part of a recognizable exchange of violence."

Kureishi cares not to elide mention of the West's violence, particularly as regards the Arab or Muslim world. "The Iraq war, we were told, would be quick and few people would die," he writes in the book. "It is as though we believed that by pressing a button and eliminating others far away we would not experience any guilt or suffering - on our side."

But does he believe we can successfully forge a path out of this parlous predicament?

"Only with a robust and committed exchange of ideas - a conflict which is worth enduring."

Hanif Kureishi's "The Word and The Bomb" is out now at all good bookstores across the Middle East.

Beirut,02 06 2006
Omar Waraich
The Daily Star
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