Six Beyond Islam
This final selection of reviews and articles strays a little outside the theme of encounters with Islam through the work of several writers. The first item is an unpublished review of William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. Fifteen years on, the main theme of his thoroughly engaging narrative - the disappearance of Christianity from the lands of its origin - is as topical, and poignant, as ever. The fears of Christians and other minority communities in Syria that they will suffer if the minority Alawite-based regime finally crumbles, are by no means groundless. Since the departure of the Mubarak regime in the spring of 2011, Egypt has seen a significant rise in attacks on the Coptic minority, while the US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent struggles between Shi‘a, Sunnis and Kurds has seen the virtual disappearance of that country’s ancient Christian communities. Islamic spokesmen often state that their religion is one of tolerance, but the actual record speaks differently.
The second item is an obituary of Edward Said, written for The Guardian a few days after his death in 2003. It incorporates elements of my review of his memoir - Out of Place (1999) - and earlier pieces, as well as accounts of his wider political and cultural activities, including his highly commendable partnership with Daniel Barenboim in creating the remarkable and hugely successful West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Though familiar with his writings, I only met this remarkably talented intellectual, who came from a Christian Palestinian family and who died after a long and heroic struggle against a rare form of cancer, on a single occasion, at a literary gathering in London. It was not a comfortable encounter: he reprimanded me for a recent piece I had written in favour of the Oslo accords between the Israelis and Palestinians. For him, Oslo was the Palestinian Versailles - an abject capitulation to Israeli-American pressure. Ten years on, with the rampant increase in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the construction of special roads for the settlers, the proliferation of check-points and an eight-metre-high concrete wall that cuts through Palestinian farms and suburbs, it is hard to quarrel with his verdict.
The final item - an appropriate tailpiece perhaps - reproduces a ‘blog’ I wrote for The New York Review of Books, which unexpectedly won an award from the Foreign Press Association. As I am not a regular blogger, I count this beginner’s luck - like the proverbial monster pike caught by a novice, to the annoyance of seasoned anglers. It concerns a mundane but distressing topic: the lack of toilets in India, and how this diminishes the life-chances of the female half of its people, and how this is being addressed by an Islamically based charity - the Aga Khan Foundation - in a Muslim quarter of Delhi. In a country with an enviable rate of economic growth, as compared with most of Europe, the lack of toilets is a scandal that deserves to be exposed.