Gilpin Library Footnotes

Larry Grieco, Librarian
Gilpin CountyGilpinj county Library

Having just returned from a two-day workshop on our new “Let’s Talk About It: Muslim Journeys theme, Literary Reflections,” I’m enthusiastic about getting the word out, as well as introducing you to the five books in the series. Dr. Nancy Ciccone, chair of the English Department at the University of Colorado, Denver, and I are working together for the third time on a “Let’s Talk about It” series.
Nancy and I didn’t have to travel far, this time — just to the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver — to hear project scholars develop the content, and coordinators from the American Library Association recommend effective ways to implement the project. We joined more than 75 representatives from other libraries around the country who received this “Let’s Talk About It” grant, many of whom were accompanied by their local scholars.
The series here at the Gilpin County Library will be offered beginning January 11, 2014, with the first book, “The Arabian Nights,” as the topic of discussion. This book is also known as “The Thousand and One Nights,” and was compiled during the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), “regarded as one of the glorious periods of Muslim civilization because of its significant contributions to scientific knowledge, cultural arts, engineering and architecture, and general intellectual innovation.”
A French translation introduced the Nights to Europe more than three centuries ago, and it has fascinated the West ever since. “The Arabian Nights” abounds with “tales of demons and treasures, mysteries, erotic details and riddles.”
It is clear to scholars that the aim of putting these tales in writing was not to create an authoritative version of them. Instead, “the text…provided a written basis from which storytellers could learn tales and freely adapt them.” Storytellers over the centuries “reworked oral traditions to meet their own needs and social milieus…to suit the demands of their audience.”
The second session of this series will be offered on January 25, with “The Conference of the Birds” as the book under discussion. This book is a twelfth-century masterpiece that offers “an accessible introduction to mystical Islam and its poetry.”
The author, Farid ud-Din Attar, was a medieval poet, and his works represent the literature of Sufi tradition. “The Conference of the Birds” is an epic poem which “reminds us that the arts and religion consistently interpenetrate, and that more complex understandings of religious expression require us to look beyond the writings of religious scholars and theologians and into the realm of culture and literature.”
In the third session, to be offered on Feb. 8, the book will be “Snow,” written by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. Published in 2002 (first English translation in 2004), “Snow” is a “multilayered postmodern novel about the political and social tensions of modern Turkey.”
This is “an enigmatically spellbinding story of a poet seeking his lost love in a remote Turkish town riven by religious conflict and cut off from the world by a blizzard.” At the heart of this novel is the “wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head scarves in school.” The poet investigates these deaths as he reunites with a long lost love from his childhood. In the Introduction, Margaret Atwood wrote: “Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time.”
The fourth session in the “Let’s Talk About It” series, to be presented on Feb. 22, is “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood,” written by Fatima Mernissi. This is a coming-of-age memoir “depicting traditional life in a harem in Fez (Morocco)…which explores the social boundaries that become fault lines in the debates over the borders between childhood and adulthood, public and private, and male and female.”
“I was born in a harem in 1940….” So begins Fatima Mernissi in this exotic and rich narrative of a childhood “behind the iron gates of a domestic harem.” It is the “provocative story of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex in the recent Muslim world.” The New York Times Book Review wrote: “Wonderful and enchanting…Mernissi brings this vanished world to life.”
The series concludes on March 8 with “Minaret,” the American debut novel by Leila Aboulela, who belongs to a new group of female Muslim novelists living in Europe. Through their writing, these novelists are “challenging the perception that Islam is oppressive toward women and incompatible with a Western lifestyle.”
The female protagonist in “Minaret,” Najwa, is a modern Muslim woman, for whom the veil “is not a symbol of gender discrimination but of empowerment and identity.” The Guardian wrote: “Tranquil and lyrical….In a narrative of complex reversals, Aboulela takes a huge risk in describing her heroine’s religious conversion and spiritual dedication. She succeeds brilliantly.”