Archive for July, 2016

Extreme Reading

July 28, 2016 in Current Reading | Comments (2)


Tabish Khair, picture by Christopher Thomsen

Rarely has a novel seemed as timely as Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane.[i] As the title implies, this is the story of a radicalized young British-Muslim woman who goes to Syria to join the jihad. The narrative is presented as a first-hand account, recounted to the writer by the protagonist, Jamilla. The form is ingenious: it circumvents all the problems of plausibility that such a project might otherwise have entailed.






The setting of the novel is not so much Syria as England, the country in which its principal characters have come of age: the experience of Muslim immigrants in Europe is thus central to it. This is familiar territory for Tabish, who is of Indian-Muslim background and has long been a resident of Denmark where he teaches at the University of Aarhus (I should add that I have known Tabish for many years and have written the foreword for an anthology that he co-edited).

But to be an European of Muslim heritage is not necessarily to possess an understanding of the motivations and aims of those who have joined the conflict in Syria: contemporary jihadism is, after all, a cult-like phenomenon that is very distant from the lives of the great majority of European Muslims. If the novels brims with convincing detail – which it does – it is clearly because a great deal of research has gone into it.

Yet it isn’t research but an aspect of Tabish’s lived experience that is the source of his most important insights into the phenomenon of jihadism. As a teacher himself he grasps, as few have done, that the processes of studying and reading, and the successes and failures of various forms of pedagogy, are central to contemporary fundamentalism (the word Taliban is, after all, the plural of talib, ‘student’).

Jamilla’s journey to Syria begins in school, and a teacher of literature plays an especially significant role in it. The teacher in question is ‘an Indian woman called Mrs Chatterji’ who ‘loved English and English poetry with the sort of fanaticism that only the ex-colonized bring to both.’

Jamilla finds Mrs Chatterji, with her love of literature and her woolly-minded liberalism, utterly ludicrous. Their differences are brought to a head by a poem (Wendy Cope’s Reading Scheme): ‘a dexterous poem,’ Jamilla says of it, ‘using a reading scheme to talk humorously about a suburban mum having an affair with the milkman and being discovered by the husband, all of it narrated through the perspective of her two small children.’

Although Jamilla is perfectly capable of appreciating the poem’s technical virtues she is irked by its content. She responds to Mrs Chatterji’s praise of its cleverness and humour by breaking into the North England dialect which is, effectively, her native language: ‘Maybe ‘tis funny to you… I’ll say ‘tis an obscene poem, ‘tis ‘bout a sin me God forbids. ‘Bout ‘dultery. ‘Raight? That’s nowt to use for cheap laughter.’

Taken aback Mrs Chatterji asks Jamilla to write an essay on the poem. She obeys, and as she writes ‘an ocean of pure vehemence’ wells up in her, ‘anger that seemed to come from beyond me, which left me feeling angrier still.’

Mrs Chatterji’s well-intentioned liberalism proves no match for the certainty of Jamilla’s conclusions: ‘Reading Scheme’ was a depraved poem about adultery, and in this it reflected the depravity of the West, which had long gone against the will of God…’

Mrs Chatterji’s face grows pale as she reads the essay and ‘at the end the papers almost slipped out of her hands. I believe she had to steady herself by leaning with an arm on her desk. Then she said to me, ‘But Jamilla, I don’t think you get the poem; it is not about morality or God; it is, it is about…’ She could not say what it was about. She repeated weakly, ‘I don’t think you get it.’

Jamilla’s victory, and her confirmation in her beliefs, is doubly assured when her family is summoned to a meeting with her teachers. They send her brother to the school and far from admonishing Jamilla he gives the headmaster and Mrs Chatterji an even ‘more emphatic rendering’ of her position, calling for a ‘blanket ban on such poems in school.’ Mrs Chatterji’s defeat is complete.

Although this episode is written in a near-comical vein, it is a powerful commentary on some of the failures of contemporary liberalism, perhaps most significantly its inability to challenge certain values and ideas largely because of a well-intentioned unwillingness to offend. But this is, in turn, an extension of the kind of ‘multi-culturalism’ that has long been practised by some Western governments, whereby state patronage is directed towards conservative religious groups because they, and not their secular counterparts, are thought to be more authentically representative of migrant populations.

Jamilla’s victory over her hapless English teacher serves to strengthen her growing convictions and she becomes increasingly focused on narrow readings of religious texts. In this she finds powerful reinforcement on the Net which by its very nature tends to reduce complex bodies of thought to simple, easily comprehensible formulae. The kind of thinking that results is typified by a fighter whom Jamilla encounters in Syria: ‘His was almost a technological Islam, its pruned rituals as shorn of ambiguity as a hammer or a computer code… It was a do-it-yourself manual – and he had many of those too, on repairing motorcycles, preparing bombs, assembling guns, electricity, carpentry… They were all short, concise, to the point, concerned not with theory but with application, not with thought but with practice.’

Muslim radicals are by no means alone in practising these instrumental methods of reading: in other religions too, including Hinduism, texts are now increasingly being read as though they were workbooks, couched in language so transparent as to be unaltered by translation. To approach complex theological documents in this way is of course a travesty of textual exegesis as it was once practised. In the past, in all religious traditions, an extensive knowledge of languages and many years of rigorous study were required in order to expound on sacred texts. Most of us simply do not have the skills to read and understand these texts and the traditions of commentary within which they are embedded: in no religion, historically, were believers encouraged to pick up their scriptures and start reading them as if they were self-explanatory. This began at a specific moment: with the Protestant Reformation. Those who decry the lack of a similar reformation in the Islamic tradition need to understand that what the world is now dealing with is the fallout of exactly such a process.

As a teacher himself Tabish understands intuitively both the mysterious power of pedagogy and the nihilism that can result from its failures. This makes Jihadi Jane a uniquely insightful account of a phenomenon that, for most of us, almost defies comprehension. Although Tabish is careful not to condescend to his principal characters his critique of their ideology and motivations is all the more powerful because he fully understands how much at odds they are with the beliefs and practices of the great majority of the world’s Muslims.

This powerful, compelling, urgent novel succeeds in being compassionate towards its principal characters without flinching from the full horror of their choices.


Amitav Ghosh

[i] Penguin India, 2016; to be published elsewhere as Just Another Jihadi Jane.

A window into the new China: Lijia Zhang’s ‘Lotus’

July 3, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



China 2010 075

I first met Lijia Zhang in 2010, at a literary event in Beijing.








She had then recently published a memoir (Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of The New China, 2008) about her extraordinary personal journey. Born into a working-class family in Nanjing she spent several years working in a factory. But her spare time was dedicated to learning English, which she did with such success that she was awarded a scholarship for a creative writing course in London.

That is where Lijia’s new book, Lotus (forthcoming 2017, Henry Holt & Co.) had its start. It is her first novel and she began it ‘while working for my MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.’ It is the story of a woman (the eponymous Lotus of the title) who leaves her birthplace, an impoverished mountain village in Sichuan, to travel to the boomtown of Shenzen, a thousand miles to the south.








As with so many rural migrants in Asia, Lotus’s desire for the city is sired by a neighbour’s television set. ‘Everyone had been so excited when her neighbor Luo Yijun’s family brought back a magic box called a dianshi ­ – electric screen. The Luos’ yard  was packed with enthusiastic viewers craning their necks for a better view of the moving pictures in the box. The unceasing stream of visitors bothered the family so much that they locked up the dianshi after a week and only took it out for public viewing during festivals. But Luo Yijun, her classmate, would invite Lotus to watch it from time to time. Once, they saw a show about Shenzen, the city just north of Hong Kong.




How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.







Every year, across Asia, millions of city-bound journeys are launched in exactly this way – and as happens only too often, Lotus’s move does not turn out as she had hoped. She finds out the hard way that “the city is a place where dragons and fish jumble together. Not a safe place for a young girl.” She ends up having to earn her living by selling her body.

The descriptions of Lotus’s life as a ji (‘chicken’ or prostitute) are remarkably persuasive – so much so that I wrote to Lijia to ask how she came by the details. I did an enormous amount of research, she wrote back. I tried to make friends with working girls. But they moved away, changed their numbers or simply vanished. Luckily I met Lanlan, a former prostitute who now runs a NGO dedicated to help female sex workers. She generously shared her experience with me and allowed me to work for her NGO, distributing condoms to the girls and hanging out with them. All the working girls are made-up characters, but many details are real.

One of the novel’s major characters is a photographer (Bing) who has made a specialty of photographing prostitutes. At one point he says to Lotus: ‘Migrant workers are China’s unsung heroes. Without their cheap labour…. there would not be China’s economic miracle.

This is indeed one of the principal  themes of the novel, and it reflects Lijia’s own life experience: ‘Coming from a poor family myself I am interested in those ‘xiao ren wu’, ‘little people’, and their struggles. You may say I am a self-appointed spokesperson for China’s under-privileged. I want to explore the emotional costs of China’s rural-urban migration. By the way, a lot of sex workers in Shenzhen areas were former factory workers.

In the novel Bing offers a slightly different explanation for his interest in ji: ‘Prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in this country.’

Bing is an idealist, a former campaigner for democracy. But he meets with several shocks when he visits Lotus’s village in Sichuan Province.

On the mud wall of her father’s house is a large portrait of Chairman Mao: It was dusty and fading, the mole under the Chairman’s chin looking more sinister than ever… In the bright morning sun it appeared so outdated that one could almost smell the mould. A memorial tablet for the ancestors and a porcelain statute of Guanyin made up a little shrine beneath the picture. What a strange combination of worship, Bing thought.

Bing’s scrutiny of the shrine does not go unnoticed by Lotus who says to her father: “Ba do you know which dynasty it is? Even Chairman Mao’s successor has died. When are you going to change the picture?”

‘Change the picture, why?’ her father countered. ‘Chairman Mao was the best emperor China ever had.’



China 2010 156

Min River, Sichuan Province




Neither as a migrant nor as a prostitute does Lotus come across as a synthetically constructed composite. A fully rounded character, she is never depicted as a victim of circumstance. Ambitious and driven though she is, she also has some unexpected traits.

China 2010 149 (480x640)

The Colossal Buddha of Leshan, 8th century, Sichuan Province


She is deeply religious for one: “You see, my grandma is a Buddhist, murmuring amitabha all day long,” Lotus explains to Bing. “I used to laugh at her for being superstitious. Now look at me, praying to the Guanyin Buddha every day.”











Lotus also has a great respect for learning (she saves her earnings diligently in the hope of putting her younger brother through college). Books hold an almost talismanic fascination for her: ‘Lotus looked through the neatly piled books. She picked up The Portrait of a Lady and looked at the lady on the cover with her feathered hat. She remembered how Bing (the photographer) had described it as a story of a girl confronting her destiny. Now she understood it was all about the girl deciding her own life’.

It is impossible not to see in this an echo of Lijia’s own journey, as a young woman obsessed with books, drawing on foreign literary models in order to seize her destiny. The irony however is that the dream that lies at the heart of Lotus’s quest – and Lijia’s – is agelessly and quintessentially Chinese: it consists ultimately in a deep faith in the transformative power of education.

In its subject matter and the circumstances of its gestation Lotus is very much a novel of its times. Globalization is its backdrop and it is situated on the boundary of two languages – English and Chinese – that are increasingly thrust together because of those processes. This is a very difficult boundary to straddle and Lijia succeeds at it precisely because she eschews one of the most pervasive and pernicious literary consequences of contemporary globalization – the constant invocation of brand names and pop-culture. She opts instead to draw upon the immense resources of China’s literary heritage, of both the folksy and classical varieties (many of the chapter titles are derived from well-known sayings and proverbs).

Consider the following passages:

The journalist had apparently done his homework. “I’m sure you’re tired of this question, but how did you become interest in ‘willow trees on the roadside and flowers on the wall’?” he used an old poetic term for prostitutes.

They started to joke, at their clients’ expense, as usul. Xia got up, and with surprising comic flair, began to mimic a hesitant client. The man had walked up and down the street half a dozen times before eventually surrendering to her come-ons. “I know his type: wanting to have fun but he doesn’t have the balls to just ask for it. So I said: ‘Hey, honey, I’m a crack shot, good at ‘shooting down the airplane’ by hand’,” Xia laughed, pumping her hand up and down… (148)

What luck, this offer. A pancake fallen from the sky, as her grandma would say!

What kind of society has China become? … “Big fish eat small fish, and small fish eat shrimps.” 

It was only a long slingshot away from East Station Road. 

The scene was as chaotic as a disturbed beehive. 

To be with him felt like cracking a plate off melon seeds – pleasant enough, but nothing too exciting.

“’Enemies and lovers are destined to meet again,’” she said, her fake eyelashes fluttering.

‘Once bitten by a snake, one shies at the sight of a coiled rope for the next ten years.’

As unnecessary as painting legs on a snake, Lotus thought.

‘A butcher can become a Buddha after dropping his knife.’

‘You ungrateful child. You simply don’t know how high heaven is.’

‘He used Lotus and us and then chucked us. He ate the meat and dumped the bone!’


At a time when the fields of reference available to fiction are increasingly in danger of being colonized by consumer culture and advertising slogans, how refreshing it is to come upon these universally comprehensible allusions!

What would be the journey of such a text were it to be translated into Chinese? Unfortunately we shall probably never know: according to Lijia a Chinese translation is unlikely ‘because I imagine the world I depicted would be too negative in the view of the authorities. Worse still I talked about 1989/Tiananmen, a taboo topic.’

Lotus is a wonderfully readable and perceptive novel about an aspect of contemporary China that remains largely invisible to the outsider. Although it pulls no punches it is saturated with the spirit of stoic optimism that sustains millions of rural migrants around the world.



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