Marmaduke Pickthall was one of the great novelists of the early 20th century, yet he has been largely forgotten, save by a few. His formidable novel, Said the Fisherman, which follows the adventures of an incorrigible scoundrel and sometimes fisherman of the Levant, was first published by Methuen in 1903. It went through 14 British editions in 25 years. It was also published in the USA, Germany and Italy. Admirers of the book included Stanley Lanepoole, Lord Cromer, H.G. Wells, D.M Forster and D.H. Lawrence.
A good writer is not only aware of the prism-like spectrum of human nature, he or she will show there is only one way to cut a believable character, scamp or savior, out of foreign cloth. That one way is to know the culture in question–know it well enough to pass as one of its own. Pickthall, the man who would later translate the holy Qur’an, knew the culture of the Middle East.
Said the fisherman is a low-class delinquent, one who fits the Syria of his time, yet one who could easily be transposed to a con artist of today in almost any country. We all know Said and wish we didn’t. He is funny from a distance and intolerable up close. The best place for the Saids of any era or culture is in a book. From that perspective, the reader can safely evaluate the very real sincerity of Said’s manner, even when he is engaged in the most reprehensible deeds, and perhaps, occasionally, sympathize with him.
Said’s good qualities are those of the well-meaning scamp. He loves children, feels occasional remorse for deserting his wife and his pious friend, Selim, and is sometimes generous. As a Muslim of the 19th century, he observes most of the outwards practices of his faith, to which he is fiercely loyal, as one might be to a football team.
But there is something dangerous about that flag-waving, unreasoning fervency that Pickthall tried to depict, in literary form, over one hundred years ago. Said is so careful to observe his prayer, he does so even during a very brief and disastrous sojourn in London, when “in the midst of his devotions, however, heavy footfalls sounded in the street, and a tall man, darkly clad, with a strange form of hat and a cudgel stuck in his belt, spoke roughly and hit him on the back.” Nonetheless, Said’s observance of prayer does not prevent him from being almost continually on the take, the kind of person who does little to strengthen a culture or economy or give it a good name.
This is more than just a yarn about an incorrigible Syrian peasant. Pickthall demonstrated an uncanny perception of the problems assailing the Muslims at large, clarifying in such a way as to lead the English language reader to a better understanding of and compassion towards the Muslim peoples. The writer accomplishes this feat by utterly absorbing the reader by the story and then letting the breadcrumbs drop.
For example, when Said enters the Great Mosque of Damascus to find the beneficent scholar and holy man Ismail Abbas (a sheriff, or descendant of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) in order to beg money from him, the reader becomes audience to a conversation between Ismail Abbas and two other eminent men of the city, just one among several passages in the novel that show the wisdom and discernment of Muslims following their religion for the sake of their souls and not for pride or tradition:”Of a truth, our lot falls in a degenerate age . . . In the time of the early Khalifs, the immediate successors of the Prophets, a Muslim had something else to do than to lie and steal and betray his neighbour . . . Where is the imam, Omar el Hattab . . .And Khalid, the Sword of Allah, where is he? Is their memory clean gone from the earth? Truly the end draws nigh. Dejil is present with us in the person of the Frankish envoys. The Sultan himself is led astray.”
Whether he was writing novels or non fiction works, Pickthall had a remarkable, penetrating literary style. He had a Dickensian sense of humor by which he shaped typical Eastern habits, like the exuberant oaths uttered thoughtlessly on all occasions, into amusing twists of irony even in the most grisly scenes. In once such, Said kneels over the dead body of his adopted father, Mustafa the beggar, and gropes to find the treasure that Mustafa had promised to leave for him, yet the whereabouts of which the old man had collapsed before being able to divulge. Said vents his frustration characteristically:
“May Allah cut short his life,” he panted. “Who but a madman would have left our wealth thus exposed? By the Prophet, it is lucky that I alone was at hand to hear his last cry. . . May his house be destroyed. “Peace be to him,” he added as an afterthought.
If you laughed at the boasts of the dog in Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red, you will cherish the humor, wisdom and panoply of Orientalist characters and scenes in Said the Fisherman. In 1986, Quartet Books of London put out the novel at the same time as Peter Clark’s biography of Pickthall. Now, in the 21st century, publisher Jameel Chishti of Beacon Books, also of London, will once more dust off a classic and offer it to lovers of all things literary.
–thanks to http://www.leftways.com/2014/10/israel-lebanon-and-syria-19th-century/ for image of Syria.
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