Reza Aslan is the editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an enormous and impressive anthology of 20th-century Middle Eastern literature.
What made you want to take on this project?
I was interested in telling the story of the modern Middle East from a literary perspective, instead of the usual lens that's used to look at the region—the lens provided by academics and outsiders, colonialists and conquerors. It's an incredibly diverse region with a rich literary history, and I wanted to see how the story of the region sounded when the region spoke for itself.
This had to be an enormous undertaking.
It was a very long and grinding process. Words Without Borders [the online magazine] wanted to put together a collection of literature from “the Muslim world”—everything from Rumi to Pamuk. I disagreed with the notion of “literature from the Muslim world,” because there's no such thing as a “Muslim world” and because most of these writers don't think of themselves as Muslim writers, any more than Philip Roth considers himself a Jewish writer. I also wanted to shorten the time scale to the 20th century. I contacted friends and colleagues who are experts in the literature of the region, and together we collected hundreds of individual works. Then I just read for about nine months straight. And as I read, an overarching narrative began forming in my mind. I culled the list down and added a few more pieces, and finally I organized it in a hybrid chronological/geographical way so that it would read as one sustained narrative, from the first page to the last.