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Literary treasure

K. KUNHIKRISHNAN reviews a volume that adequately represents the literary tradition of West Asia.


THE Middle East normally denotes the area between South West Asia and North East Africa. The ancient and fertile countries of the Middle East, (West Asia) now a boiling cauldron, have given rise to many great civilisations. This is a region of fluid borders, inhabited by multiple ethnicities, and home to many cultures: Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Jewish, Persian, Arab, and Turkish. They were among the most advanced and oldest of the ancient world, with a written literary tradition going back to 4,000 years; the first known writer is believed to be the Sumerian moon priestess, Enheduanna. Thus many literary, religious and philosophical traditions have had their origins from this region.

An anthology of the literatures of the region is of significance. It includes important Arabic and Hebrew texts from North West Africa and Arab Andalusia, due to the fact that the literatures of Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, ancient Israel, Persia and the Arab speaking countries were intimately connected by influence and chronology and by a series of great empires. Dynasties came, conquered, ruled and vanished, but the traditions in arts and literature that they built have remained for posterity. Many important writings, dating back to the third millennium, originated from these lands. Even the Bible, appropriated from the East as the foundation book of western morality and thought, has not quite been thought of as an Asian book.

The Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian roots of the Bible are brought out in the anthology and the synthesis of thoughts and traditions become clearer. The stories of Genesis and divine retribution that reappear in the Old Testament as versions of the fall of Adam and Eve of Paradise and of Noah and the Flood came from Mesopotamia. The literary affinities of the region are so large that they basically work as unifying threads of religion as the Quran is deeply informed by Biblical figures and traditions. Countries of the West Asian region gave the West its major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — their myths, and models for literature and the arts. Though there has been a substantive volume of great literatures in various parts of the world, it was only Western writing that was considered to be universal. By and large the literary world was ignorant of the great writings in China, Japan, India, and West Asia, which were the cradles of great civilisations. It is due to the efforts of translations and anthologies that included great representative writings that resulted profoundly in the world's literary traditions.

Western civilisation owes a lot to West Asia: Greek temples were modelled after Egyptian temples and sculptures. Sumerian and Babylonian flood stories were retold in the Genesis. The Old Testament is in Hebrew, an Asian language and Greek in the New Testament was written in Asia for an Asian audience. Asian deities were the foundation of Western Judeo-Christian religions. Even the activity of writing itself with scripts and alphabets was of Middle Eastern origin. Writing gave rise to literature which is a bridge linking the civilizations of the past. Writing began in Sumerian Mesopotamia, which lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present day Iraq — the same area that gave Eden's Adam and Eve and which was the homeland of Abraham and Jews before their entry into Canaan.

In the second millennium, the Egyptians were using the hieroglyphic system of writing to communicate. Independently, the Sumerians and the Egyptians developed much simpler phonetic syllabaries consisting of about 26 letters. Modern writing began. Meanwhile, the Phoenicians (a term the Greeks invented to distinguish the Canaanites of the coast from the Canaanites of Palestine) were preparing their own alphabet. The Greeks called them Phoenicians because of the famous purple (Phoenicia in Greek) cloth they made. They developed a phonetic alphabet which spread to Greece. From the Phoenician-inspired Greek script came the Roman alphabet in Western Europe.

The writings of most ancient civilisations are compiled in this volume. The texts stretch from antiquity to the present and reveal right through the universal nature of literature. Writers, religions, and philosophies have always tried to answer the basic questions of life and the phenomenal world and that is the inherent strength and elevating quality of great literature.

There are six sections in the anthology that are arranged by genre and chronology. The first contains the oldest literary writings dating back to almost 4,500 years, like the Pyramid texts, Enheduanna, the epic of Gilgamesh and ancient Egyptian love poems. Section two carries the Biblical literature extracts: the Old Testament (11th to First Centuries B.C.) with the Books of Job, Ecclesiastes, The Song Songs, and Isaiah and the New Testament: the gospels of Mathew (A.D. 80-110), Mark (After A.D. 70), John and The Revelation. There are also the inter-testaments of the Jewish and Christian Psalms and scrolls, odes and scriptures.

Origins of early Arabic literature are traced in the brilliant introduction with the historical details of the genesis of Islam, with its roots in Judaism and Christianity. Arabic literature declined with the dominance of Quran, but enjoyed a resurgence in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries in Baghdad. Under Caliph Harun al-Rashid, monumental Arab prose romance The Thousand and One Nights became well known. Literature and the arts flourished in other Muslim countries also.

The volume adequately represents the literature, poems of Rabia, the Mystic Abu Nuwas, Usama ibn Munquidh and six stories from the Arabian Nights (not really the best). The next section consists of excellent poems of Arab Andalusia. Persian literature was dominant during the period, which began with the writings of the Zoroastrian tradition. Excerpts from the works of Ferdowsi (940-1020), Omar Khayyam's (1048-1131) The Rubaiyat (he was a mathematician and astronomer), Attar (1120-1220), Rumi and of Sadi are included and each work is truly reflective of the class of literature that was there.

The last and the best section is that of Modern Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Alexandrian Greek and Persian literatures. It has been brought out that the political history of these regions permeated the cultural and literary histories of the region. It is a treat to read the short stories of modern literary giants of the region like the Israeli story writers S. Y. Agnon and Amoz Oz and the poet Yehuda Amiachi, the Turkish poet Nazzim Hikmet and the story writer Yashar Kermal, the Egyptian writers Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris, the Moroccan poet Mririda Nait Attick, and the Syrian writer Haydar Haydar. A few of them are the best of living writers in the world, while others have bagged the Nobel Prizes for literature.

An anthology of the quality and content of this nature is therefore commendable.

Literatures of the Middle East: From Antiquity to the Present, edited by Willis Barnstone and Tony Barnstone, published by Prentice Hall, Upper saddle River, New Jersey 07458, $44.

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