Asad lived an amazing life which he describes beautifully. Meetings with future kings of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran before their ascension, espionage into Fascist-controlled Libya and British Iraq: Asad covered a lot of ground. He nests his recollections like the 1001 Nights, one scene inside the other, going further back in time with each one. Yet the book seemed so dated. Asad (1900-1992) was a man of the 20th century, and his Modern rationalist outlook, his Islamist politics and his extreme attachment to the House of Saud feel like relics of a previous age here in the Post-modern, Post-binLaden 21st. The Road to Mecca was a fascinating historical document but not particularly inspirational to this reader.
I’d had this static in my head for some time. I don’t know if it is the fasting or the need of a vacation or what. Fasting doesn’t normally affect me that way. Whatever the reason, I’d had it for a while now, a distractedness, a listlessness. Only when I found myself out shopping with my wife for her new specs and found myself in front of a bookstore did I realize I need a book. I need a book. I strode inside and went straight to the fiction section.
I hadn’t read a novel in I don’t know how long. I do almost all my reading online, come to think of it. I read the newspaper daily online, the New York Times, and get most all the information I feel the need for from links and forwards from somewhere or other. But reading online isn’t the same as paper. I think it’s mostly because of the nasty flickering of my cheap monitor that does it, that gives me that tired and defocused feeling after a period of reading online. But maybe there’s something about the medium itself. I don’t know. Reading a book on paper is soothing and calming. I’d forgotten that.
I went straight to the fiction section and browsed through the limited selection. There’s a few books I’ve marked mentally as wanting to read, if I ever came across them, but I scanned the shelves and none of them presented themselves. I finally settled on a book called “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. I’d never heard of him, but the book was set in India in 1975, the year I was born and a few years before I arrived there. I bought it. I finished it in two days. It was just what I needed. The book itself was just all right, nothing spectacular. It follows four people thrown together for a year during Indira Ghandi’s Internal Emergency. The book has great detail; it brought back lots of memories, of beggars, of supercrowded buses, of the market, of a trip we took to a scheduled caste village. The characters were good too, sympathetic and believable. But the ending was just awful. Here these four people are, struggling to get by as their economic position, their future is chipped away at, even as their situations go from bad to far far worse, they can make it through their kindness to each other, their incredible adaptability. But in the last few pages, for really no apparent reason, one of the four just can’t take it anymore and throws himself in front of a train. The End. It’s like the author ran out of ideas and tied off the story the easy way. I think any story that ends in suicide in the last paragraph is by definition a crappy book. It’s not that I can’t handle tragedy. The majority of the book is far more tragic than that. It’s that it is so unexplained, and so incongruous with what I’ve experienced of Indian culture. It’s like the author deliberately refused to give the book meaning, even though the story up till then was suffused with meaning. But instead, no, meaningless death. I always read the last sentence of any book I’m about to buy. If I had read the last paragraph, I wouldn’t have bought it. Nonetheless, reading a novel was just what I needed, even one that ended badly like that.
The day after finishing it I went to the local university library, which had an even more woeful selection, except with more Shakespeare, and checked out “Underworld” by Don DeLilo. You’ve probably heard of it, since it was a national bestseller. It also got a lot of publicity after September 11 because the cover shows a gloomy shot of the twin towers with a bird banking toward the towers that could be a plane if you squint. The book came out years before; it is obviously a coincidence, but just like the $20 note that you can fold to look the towers, it got a lot of buzz because of it. I’m still in middle of it. It is a strange book in that there is hardly a narrative at all. It’s more like a series of vignettes or short stories with just two or three themes barely stringing them together. But it is still a very captivating book, because the vignettes are so moving. Each one evokes a different picture or idea to chew on. And the writing is very distinctive. He writes in idiom, with lots of sentence fragments, and mixed tenses and made up words, not just in the conversation but in the author’s narrative too, really loose and free. I especially like the made up words and the words that don’t technically fit the meaning but the sound of them still works. I find my own writing terribly stiff and boring, so I’m hoping to draw a little inspiration from this one. I go on holiday officially on Wednesday (I’ve been on holiday mentally for two weeks now); I’ll probably finish it up then.
The dua, or supplication, is perhaps the most personal aspect of muslim prayer, but it tends to get overlooked in favor of the striking movements of the Salat, or daily prostration. Unlike the salat, which allows for only a limited amount of modification, and must be done in Arabic, the dua is almost entirely up to the discretion of the worshipper and may be done in one’s native tongue. Thanks to Metafilter, I found a great site cataloguing many famous duas. And people say Mefi is irreligious! Among others, it contains the complete collection of duas by the great Imam Sayyidina Zain Al-Abideen (ra), entitled Sahifat As-Sajadiyya. Sayyidina Zain Al-Abideen (ra) is the son of Hussain (ra) the son of Ali (ra) the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The dua brings up to the surface each individual’s relationship to their Lord, and it is for this that the duas of Sayyidina Zayn Al-Abideen (ra) are so special. His duas show us the highest stations of good manners in front of our Lord. Although it is acceptable to ask our Lord for what we need, this can lead to us asking for what is not good for us or asking for the fulfillment of vain desires. Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz! is a crass example, but the “multimedia dua” linked to in the Metafilter article reeks of this, and God knows best. For this reason, there are those who feel the best manner in dua is to ask for acceptance of God’s will, and the duas of Sayyidina Zayn Al-Abideen are replete with this kind of piety. For me, his duas epitomize Surrender to the Will of God, which is the root meaning of Islam. Here is a segment from the Dua of Sorrow:
I have no command along with Thy command.
‘Accomplished is Thy judgement of me,
just Thy decree for me!
I have not the strength to emerge from Thy authority
nor am I able to step outside Thy power.
I cannot win Thy inclination,
arrive at Thy good pleasure,
or attain what is with Thee
except through obeying Thee
and through the bounty of Thy mercy.
I rise in the morning and enter into evening
as Thy lowly slave.
I own no profit and loss for myself
except through Thee.
I witness to that over myself
and I confess to the frailty of my strength
and the paucity of my stratagems.
So accomplish what Thou hast promised me
and complete for me what Thou hast given me,
for I am Thy slave, miserable, abased,
frail, distressed, vile, despised, poor, fearful,
and seeking sanctuary!