More than Words

Somehow I get the feeling that this year, I must spend a lot of my time reading poetry. And I must do it with physical copies of books. In English, of course, and if I can manage it, in Urdu as well. However, my reading is very slow this year. I’ve just finished the third book, and it was made possible due to a long-distance train journey. It’s been so many years since I sat in one, but thankfully, the elongation of time that occurs in such travelling demanded the filling up of it.

My problem with Rafik Schami’s books that I owned (The Calligrapher’s Secret and The Dark Side of Love) was that they are humungous. The Calligrapher’s Secret not so much but there was no way I could carry around The Dark Side of Love and read it on-the-go. But, then, again, I wanted to read a Syrian novel. How could I not? The world knows of the razed country, but I was curious about what it was like when regular life prevailed? What kind of people lived there? What were their stories? This was not to glorify misery, but to understand a country that may never exist, anymore. I had a friend who once publicly supported the bombing of civilians in Syria and went on to say on Facebook that the entire country should be wiped out. Some people do get their wishes, don’t they?

But The Calligrapher’s Secret was tedious. Don’t get me wrong; it was a detailed an insight into the lives of Arab Muslims and Arab Christians and the relationships they shared. It was full of the visual directions into the souks and houses of Damascus. It showed how fanatics operate, the dedication to a craft, the growing fractures between the people of a nation, and the gradual wearing away of normal life. But it was also meandering, jumping, and gnawing at times. I kept at it, and now that it’s done, I am conflicted about how I feel about it. It may have been a challenge to read, but it touches an essential subject.

At its core, the book captures the attempts of a Secret Society of the Wise (Calligraphers) who want to reform the Arabic script so that it’s more efficient, easily readable, and can effectively translate many words used in other foreign languages. However, they face resistance from the fanatics who believe that the Quran was written in Arabic and so the language must not be changed. There is a complex interplay of history, language, and religion, while at the attention-grabbing arm of it is a love story of a Muslim woman and a Christian man.

Incidentally, this is not the only language-related piece of art that I am conflicted about. I didn’t really enjoy Arrival as much as I hoped to have. Do not ask me to articulate why. I had begun doing so, and then stopped when I was told that maybe I hadn’t watched the movie properly. I don’t see why I can’t just be lukewarm about something without having an entire thesis around it.

Anyhoo. I should probably go and read up on language and the academic literature related to its changes. Should be fun.

Meanwhile, here’s an essay on calligraphy along with some stunning pictures. It also has an extract from the book.

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