I am currently reading V S Naipaul’s Beyond Belief (1998). According to the London Review of Books (September 1998), linked to the title:
Beyond Belief is the narrative of Naipaul’s five-month journey to India, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia – a return to the countries he visited, and often the people he interviewed, almost two decades earlier. The book begins by making two major claims. The first is that it is a work of pure transmission through transparent writing: ‘This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion. It is a book of stories.’ Let the speaks fact for themselves, an impeccable sentiment to be sure. Naipaul, so he tells us, is just a ‘manager of narrative’. All the writer has to do is ‘listen very carefully and with a clear heart to what people say to him’.
‘Is that so?’ the reader mutters, head cocked sceptically at the conjuror’s artless artfulness. The voices will address us directly, in stories without opinion, unsullied by anything save translation and ‘management’? (I recall Christian priests and Muslim ulema in Egypt assuring me with equal fervour that all the other side had to do was to study the Bible/Quran with a sincere heart and conversion would naturally follow. A sigh, with thirteen hundred years of pious disappointment, and polemic, behind it. The trouble is . . .) And isn’t a man who proclaims his own clarity of heart, like the would-be saint who advertises his own deeds as miracles, inviting the irreverent to have a go at him, just to see?
The second claim, a ringing denial of the first, is that the inhabitants of the countries on his itinerary are convert peoples who have adopted the ‘imperial’ religion of Islam. And Muslim converts, even if the conversions took place hundreds of years ago, are fundamentally (and in multiple registers) dislocated – externally, because the holy places are in Arabia and the sacred language is Arabic; internally, because the convert ‘rejects his own’ and lives in fantasies about who and what he is. (Not only the convert, the reader mutters.) He – the convert is nearly always a he – is trapped in an endless repetition of turning and turning away from self and place. Such countries ‘can be easily set on the boil’. This is shallow stuff, which seems to imply that only some autochthonous group which has never converted can have ‘their own’ faith.
The convert, in Beyond Belief, is doomed by this monolithic, ahistorical Islam to neurosis and nihilism, rather than to the rage and resentment of Among the Believers. Either way, it’s a puzzle that Asian Muslims bother with religion at all. Quite apart from the intellectual emptiness of Naipaul’s writing, you wonder at the wilful censoring it takes to pass over in silence the history of different forms of imperial and eagerly conversionist Christianity in Africa, the Americas and Asia – an unfinished history, and as aggressively competitive as any mullah’s dreams of a paradise for a sect. Moreover, Naipaul’s sheer ignorance, or ignoring, of all the different varieties of thought, symbol and practice in which often eclectic forms of Islam have been enmeshed in Asia leaves only strident assertions in place of an argument. His is an Islam which turned the radiance of the Indian sub-continent ‘into the light of a dead star’ and, because of its devotees’ fantasies and confusions, bears all responsibility for the horrors of Partition. The violent and dangerous activities of Hindu nationalists go unremarked….
Needless to say the book has stirred up controversy, most recently in 2012. See Excerpts: Girish Karnad takes on V.S. Naipaul: Noted playwright claims Naipaul has consistently mischaracterised Indian history. See also Gothic Horror and Muslim Madness in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: ‘Orientalist’ Excursions among the Converted People and V S Naipaul and Indian Muslims.
Naipaul says, “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.” It is true that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was revealed in Arab. The seed of this faith, like any other faith, traveled to different parts of the world from that epicentre. However, it is a misnomer to label it as an Arab religion. This term gives the impression that it (Islam) was meant only for the Arabs. A Priori, it may also imply that those non-Arabs who converted to this faith were somehow illegitimate or inferior in doing so. However, it was Islam, which preached the message that no one—Arab, non-Arab, white, black, tall, short—is superior or inferior to any one else, except in terms of piety. Naipaul’s second assertion is historically unsound. The fact is, even the first generation Muslims who became Muslims on the call of prophet Mohammad were converts—converts from their pagan faiths. Not even the prophet was a born Muslim. After he got enlightenment, only then did he become the messenger of God. Taking the logic further, can we ask if we can call the Europeans converted Christians or the American Jews as converts?
And yet – and so far I am still on the first section on Indonesia – the book is really very informative. This reviewer, not entirely unjustly, characterises Naipaul’s method thus:
It is possible, going by the ethics of Beyond Belief to visit a country, select men and women at random, interview them and gather enough material to create a book that supports your pre-formed hypothesis. Though Mr. Naipaul cautions his readers not to arrive at any conclusions based on his work,—how is that possible?—it is easier to jump than to think.
But in Indonesia the “random” men and women included Abdurrahman Wahid, to be President of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, B J Habibie, President 1998-99 but not at the time of Naipaul’s visit, and influential intellectual Imaduddin. The result is rather better than random and well worth reading in the light of what has happened in Indonesia since c1995.
The book also has major sections on Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia.
A light-hearted comic adventure/crime fiction/thriller set in Korea is among my recent eBooks: Bagged in Korea (2013) by Brent Meske. “Brent is a husband, father, teacher, writer, and sometimes artist living in Seoul Korea, originally from Detroit, Michigan.” I have not been to Korea but have in the past 25 years had much to do with Koreans.
There am I, third from the left, with a Japanese Christian and Mr Kim from Korea on my right, a couple of Indonesian Muslims, Rui from Tianjin China, two more Indonesians, a Korean, and another Indonesian on my left. It’s a long time ago now, and I have always been better with faces than names. This is just one group from the hundreds of students I came to know in 1990 to early 1991 when I ventured into the overseas student world. Most were those Chinese who had left their country in the wake of Tiananmen. Rui, for example, was a scientist.
Some of them did experience racism or at least xenophobia, often of the petty kind: finding people would not sit next to them in the train, for example. (On the other hand, I read of a black American in Korea who found an entire swimming pool suddenly empty of people when he dived in.) Some of them, like the thirteen Nepalese mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald today, found themselves conned or ripped off, though the perpetrators were quite often of the same ethnicity as the fleeced. Some overseas student agencies were ethical and indeed excellent, as is still the case, but some were shysters. Some private colleges were shonky, very shonky, and some were not. Some were owned by Indonesians or Chinese, some were not.
One Korean student reported racism to me once: taxis would not stop for him. I investigated by asking him what he did to hail a cab. He demonstrated with a hand movement which would work in Korea, but in Sydney would be interpreted as “I don’t want a cab.” Correct hand movement taught, the problem was solved.
— June 2009
A sample from Bagged in Korea:
Simon’s become my lifeline, and that makes him my best friend. Instead, I pull out a green man won bill and hand it to him, then gesture inside.
He looks like I have just resuscitated his puppy. Am I Santa Claus? Am I God? Should he bow before me and pay tribute by chopping off a finger? I can’t help but chuckle at the blind adoration on Simon’s face. Kids here, apparently, don’t go roaming around with lots of cash.
Simon comes back out a minute later with a packet of ramyun and a bottle of Amino Up. These are two Korean favorites. The first is just like ordinary ramen noodles, only my kids like to eat them as snacks. The second is essentially Pocari Sweat with a sensible name.
“Yes teacher?” He’s so prompt, so clipped and quick.
“When do you usually go to bed?” Because when I was twelve or thirteen, I headed to hit the hay around ten or ten thirty. We’re well past that.
“Twelve maybe?” he sort of asks.
“You mean you don’t know?”
He shrugs. “I do homework first. Finish, and sleep.”17
Those footnotes, gathered at the end of the novel, are a treat in themselves.
17: This means homework every day. Homework for his elementary school, his piano school, math school, science school, English school, and any other academies he might have.
A custom replicated by Koreans in Sydney – and see my On welfare issues with Korean-Australian students (2007).
Another footnote from the novel:
I didn’t know this before, but there are about 28,000 [US] troops stationed in Korea. There are bases all up and down the country, from up in Uijeongbu near the DMZ, down to Pohang and back. Around a hundred and eighty American military bases spot the South Korean landscape.
Finally another eBook that is hot (in several ways) and deals very directly with the issue of adolescent homosexuality: Richard Campbell, The Natural Couple (2004).
Set in London in the nineteen seventies, the story concerns fifteen year old Martin Jackson, the product of a broken home who lives with his career oriented and domineering mother. In spite of his talent he is a diffident boy, and struggling to come to terms with himself and his sexual orientation. When he meets Jimmy, three years older than he is, his life takes on a new meaning. Jimmy eventually comes to love him, encourages his writing, appoints himself as his protector and is determined to remove him from his mother’s oppressive influence.
The book contains explicit gay sex scenes. If you would be upset or offended by them, please do not download it.
The title itself is a provocation.
“I would like to ask you just one question James,” she began.
Jimmy who was seldom called by his full name stared at her and looked impossibly insolent. She decided to plunge straight in instead of building up to her point gradually as she’d planned.
“Did you know when you indulged in those,practices, that they were wrong, and that you were both breaking the law?” she snapped.
If she had hoped to intimidate him, she missed her mark.
“I didn’t believe that they were wrong then, and I don’t believe they were wrong now,” he replied, then went on before she could speak. “As for your second question,” there was a titter from the public gallery which inflamed her further, making her flush slightly. “As for your second question,” he repeated, enjoying it, “It’s the law that’s wrong. Not what Jon and I did.”
Martha noted the judge’s reaction to this out of the corner of her eye and determined to pin him down. “Will you repeat that please?”
“I said that it’s the law that’s wrong, ” Jimmy said in a clear, carrying voice.
“Have you studied law?” she asked in a cold voice.
“No, of course I haven’t. But I don’t have to have to be a lawyer like you to know hypocrites when I see them.”
Yes, the sex, when it occurs, is very explicit, so be warned – and yet I would hesitate to call it pornographic. The book is in fact very well written and raises some very serious issues. I did find aspects of the plot stretched credibility a little. The protagonists may perhaps be just too aware, at times.
“Thank you My Lord. Now Jimmy, please tell us why you feel the law is wrong.”
“It discriminates against me because I’m a boy. I’m sixteen and I was sixteen when I fell in love with Jon. If I was a girl, I could have an affair with anyone I liked and no-one could say anything about it, or do anything about it. And if I had sex with a girl, provided she was sixteen too, it would be the same. But because I’m a boy, I have to wait five years before I can have sex with who I want to. It is unfair, and it is hypocritical, and it is notright, and it is not just! I don’t think that any other group of people is discriminated against like this because of the way they are born. People like me don’t choose to be the way we are, it just happens. And for people to be persecuted for the way they are born is the sort of thing that happened hundreds of years ago. I think it’s time it was stopped. That’s why I think the law is wrong.”
“Is there anything else you would like to add?”
“Just one thing, sir,” he said ignoring the judge’s irritated movement. “I was doing a project on the second world war at school last term and I found out that boys just a year older than me were called up to fight and I realised that if we had a war again, I could be sent to fight and probably killed in a few months time when I turned seventeen. The government that makes the laws can send boys to fight knowing that lots of them will die while they sit safely in parliament, not doing any of the fighting and not taking any chances themselves. I would be old enough to be killed according to the law, but I would not be old enough to choose what sort of sex I can have. I can vote when I’m eighteen, but I can’t choose what sort of sex I have. I’m responsible enough to drive a car when I’m seventeen which can kill lots of innocent people if I’m not careful, but I can’t choose to go to bed with a boy or a man. A type of sex that does no harm to anyone, is more important than dying for my country or killing people on the roads! If that isn’t wrong and if that isn’t hypocritical, I don’t know what is.”
There was silence for a minute when he finished. He was panting slightly and a lock of his dark blonde hair had fallen over his forehead. Jonathan felt his heart turn over with love, and marvelled at how much he had grown up in the months that they had known each other.