Friday, April 20, 2007

[Interview] Haroon Moghul

Haroon Moghul graduated from New York University with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Philosophy and is currently pursuing a Ph.D at Columbia University.

He sits on the editorial board of Islamica Magazine and is a regular contributor to Eteraz.org.

In 2004, his blog, Avari-Nameh won the Brass Crescent Awards for Best Writing, Best Post and Best Overall Blog. The blog is concerned with issues of Muslim identity, politics and society. Moghul went on to receive the Brass Crescent Award for Best Thinker in 2005, for his contribution to the discourse on Islam.

In addition to writing essays, short stories and poems, Haroon Moghul is the author of two novels: My First Police State (2003), a self-published travelogue; and The Order of Light (Penguin India, 2005).

In a recent interview, he spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.

What is your latest novel, The Order of Light about? What sets it apart from the other things you have written?

The book is about what happens when you take a look at the Muslim world, and what happens when extremism follows itself to its most extreme conclusions.

What happens when a young, impressionable, spoiled, naive Muslim kid goes to Egypt, to learn about Islam, with all the money and resources his privileged Western upbringing provides him, but finds that religion, as he understands it, doesn't fill the gap he feels? Who should he blame, himself or society? And what happens if he finds a group of people whose answer to that question includes violence? What happens when his own logic leads him to very dark places of the human heart, and human history, and contemporary affairs?

Most of the time, I write short essays, political commentary, satire or history. "The Order of Light" blends a lot of those genres into itself, but ultimately, "The Order of Light" is a work of fiction, a snapshot of a very troubled young man at a very impressionable age, and that makes it different. I haven't tried that before. I don't know if I'll do it again, but I do know that it was worth it.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Several years, on and off. I started in the summer of 2001, while actually in Cairo, and continued to write it for some time afterwards.

I get obsessed with revising and rethinking and actually found it hard to say, "You know what? I'm done. No more."

It was published in the fall of 2005, by Penguin India. On August 30, 2006, Penguin Global released the work for North American and European markets. In the spring of 2007, Cherche Midi will publish a French translation.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Trying to create a story that blends a very intense look inside a person's mind with a rather off-beat, curious science fiction that relies on legends in late classical Muslim history, combining the inner and the outer in a way that satisfies my expectations of the work, and makes itself provocative to Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans and Europeans and Indians and Pakistanis and so on.

Everyone these days, it seems, can't go five steps without bumping into Islam. But it's one thing to confront Islam. Another to try to understand it, or, in my case, make others understand Islam.

Which did you enjoy most?

Describing Cairo, and remaking it for an imaginary time-line. It's a lot of fun. It's a lovely city, magical even.... and writing it was like reliving it.

Not to mention the deep history of the place. Being from America, we are often missing out on that kind of antiquity. It's a special thing, and deserves to be celebrated and recalled.

What will your next book be about?

If only I could find the time to write!

Let's just say I'm working on it, and it's nothing like my previous book. It deals with a lot of deep ideas... Love. Belonging. Community. Loneliness. Madness. Ambition. Inheritance. Two choices when both are bad. But it's not about Islam, or the Islamic world, or even the modern world.

I want to write something for an English audience that wants a damn good story, something they'll put down and think, I was entertained, fascinated and troubled and intrigued and I feel like there was more than a little bit of me in it.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

We are made of many perspectives. Morally, it is up to us to bring them into harmony -- in Indian Islam, that's called tatbiq -- but moral harmony doesn't mean denying diversity. On the contrary. That becomes very limiting, very stifling, very stale. I want to get beyond that.

It is very important that what we write have a positive effect, on ourselves and on others. That means that, as a Muslim, as a student, as an American, I want to have a clarifying impact on myself and on others, to preserve knowledge, to improve, to assist, and a writer should be careful not to write for the sake of baser impulses, because that can cause personal and social harm.

I don't believe in a simplistic art for art's sake -- I am an adult, and that requires maturity, sensitivity, and a respect for one's dignity and humanity. But don't think this means dry summarization and transmission. Oftentimes imaginary scenarios and fantasy allow us to see ourselves, and our capabilities, our weaknesses, our potentials and our hopes, from very fascinating perspectives.

In the writing that you are doing, who has influenced you the most?

I remember, years ago, when I was still in grade school, loving stories, loving reading and enjoying writing. For a while I was enthralled by poetry, but as I entered college, I began to realize how much more I enjoyed prose. So as my interest in poetry waned, my interest in prose accelerated. Even now, I don't feel right if I don't write, preferably every day, if even something small, something trite.

It's almost a compulsion. But it is a very wonderful compulsion.

I read a lot. As a student, planning to go into academia, and as someone who enjoys wide varieties of writing, I can't really narrow this list down very successfully. Some fiction names would include Pamuk, Kafka, Philip Roth, Arthur Philips, Updike, Orwell, Huxley, Milan Kundera.

I love non-fiction, especially essays, whether journalistic -- I'm thinking what goes into The New Yorker, or work by people like Geneive Abdo, Amy Waldman, Anthony Shadid -- and collections of essays, too. Not to mention that television and film have been profound influences. I think the visual medium has succeeded in telling great stories, and I don't see why writing can't be seen as influenced by, and influencing, good visual media. In that regard I enjoy everything from Iranian films to science fiction.

Speaking of Iran, the classical Muslim tradition has been a powerful force too, from the lessons of the Qur'an to Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry and philosophy and aesthetics. There are some astonishingly beautiful works of art in that cultural universe, which are sadly passed over by people more interested in Islam as little more than sacred terror.

Have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I don't see how one can be influenced by anything but a personal influence. What other kind of influence is there, really?

How much time do you spend on writing?

Sometimes I read about novelists so dedicated to their task, their craft, they set aside time to write everyday, and do so religiously. I could only aspire to be so dedicated. I used to write more than I do now, not only for myself, but blogging; these days, however, I have decided to concentrate more on my studies. I very much want to be a professor, and feel that, armed with a Ph.D., I could expand the range, scope and effectiveness of my writing. Till then, though, I should be doing more reading and more research. More to learn. Much, much more.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Of course, like so many other young Americans, I worry about finding a job, a good standard of living, politics, the environment, paying for health care, so on and so forth.

Like any person raised in a religious tradition, I worry a lot about salvation. Am I doing the right thing with my life? If I die tomorrow, what will become of me? Because, in a worldly sense, I have so much to be thankful for. I am at a great school, studying what I love. I have wonderful friends and family, and, being recently married, can confidently say I have decided to spend the rest of my life with an astonishingly perfect woman.

How do you deal with these challenges?

Prayer. And lots of worrying, too. It's important to relax, and I do that through writing, of course, [and through] reading, socializing, watching movies, taking walks [and] listening to music.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer? And, how did you get there?

Getting published.

By the grace of God, with hard work, and most of all, the support of family, friends and great advisors, editors and total strangers. The library in my old hometown, Somers, Connecticut -- that staff was so helpful, so kind, so encouraging, so resourceful!

Writing might seem like a lonely task. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and depends upon the kindness, concern and assistance of a lot of other people. I am so grateful that I had this chance and I hope I never lose that sense of gratitude.

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2 comments:

Susan Abraham said...

Dear Ambrose,
I'm sorry this may seem so irrelevant to your post - which I enjoyed reading - but I wanted to say thank you for linking me to your blogroll.
That was very kind of you.
I do find your posts inspiring for me as a writer and your interview stories highly compelling.
Happy New Year Ambrose and I look forward to reading you in 2007.

Nadia N. said...

I've met Haroon and is an incredibly talented and inspiring person. As an aspiring/recreational writer, I loved reading this!