Saladin Ahmed’s ”Throne of the Crescent Moon” An Arab-American Fantasy Epic

Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon” is inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. In his review, Richard Marcus says the epic adds much needed diversity to the fantasy genre

Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn’t blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn’t prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either “swarthy” or “svart” while his heroes are universally pale-skinned by employing the well-worn “product of his times” argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can’t be offered the same out.

In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author’s imagination, or the fact that you can’t walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of ethnicities among the populace, it is a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale-skinned lovely.

A “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only” club

Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you’ll notice quite a difference from what you’d see on the street. It’s awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs, i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only.

This isn’t a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn’t look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

The combination of the book’s title and the author’s name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn’t be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myths and legends in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there’s a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full-length novel, and it’s not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of storytelling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers, he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past.

In this case he has looked to the ancient east African city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed’s descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Fighting ghuls and demons

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it’s true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he’s as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family.

As this story commences he’s forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he’s asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he’d been able to make peace with this trade-off, recently he’s began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.

Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you’re morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack.

The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men’s lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he’s picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn’t just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades.

Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor’s home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man, part jackal, who can’t be harmed by normal weapons, only by those made of silver. It’s only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survive the attack. For while Zamia’s silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would have gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its “blessed friend” sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn’t bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane.

The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince’s uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

Effortlessly convincing

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won’t be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over-explained and filled the story with unnecessary details, supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture solely through the deeds and thoughts of his characters.

Whether it’s something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you’ll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you’re more knowledgeable about.

However, don’t read this book because it’s different. Read it because its well written. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that’s something to look forward to.

Islam body to guide UK government

Britain has taken the lead among Western countries with large resident Muslim communities to fund a board of Islamic theologians who will pronounce on some of the knottiest, most controversial issues of faith such as women’s rights and kamikaze religiosity, in what many see as an attempt to create an Anglo-Saxon version of Islam. The British body, which is yet to be given a name, will bring together 20 leading Islamist thinkers. It will be financially sponsored by the government but is advertised as committed to the baseline of independent thought, with no reference to political considerations. The British body will be distinct from its five-year-old French forbear, the Council for the Muslim Religion and will have more authority and weight than the UK’s most important, existing Muslim representative body, the Muslim Council of Britain. Analysts said the new British body has emerged as an attempt to sideline violent extremists who preach a hate-filled version of Islam dedicated to the destruction of Western systems and patterns of thought. The new British body, which was publicly endorsed as a good idea whose time has come by communities secretary Hazel Blears, will see Oxford and Cambridge Universities host a group of scholars to lead the debate on key British Muslim issues such as women’s rights and responsibilities and loyalty to the host country, Britain.

France Resists Ethnic Census

Contrary to certain Anglo-Saxon countries, France has historically refused to count its ethnic minorities, on the principle, engraved in the Constitution, that the Republic only recognises citizens “without distinction of origin, race or religion.” The Europe-wide debate over this rationale began in the 1990s, and the failure of the French model of integration gave new weight to arguments in favour of collecting data on dates of naturalisation, responders’ own and parents’ county of origin, and other attributes relating to racial and ethnic origins. The debate overstepped its EU-France boundaries, and began to rage within the French government. {(continued below in French)} La controverse, qui n’agitait gu_re que les d_mographes, a pris de l’ampleur _ partir de la fin des ann_es 1990, lorsque les pouvoirs publics fran_ais – sous la pression des instances europ_ennes – ont affich_ leur volont_ de combattre les discriminations. En mettant en _vidence les failles du “mod_le fran_ais d’int_gration”, ce combat a indirectement contribu_ _ nourrir des plaidoyers pour la reconnaissance des minorit_s dites “visibles”. Jusque dans l’outil statistique, o_ elles sont justement invisibles : “Il existe une source sp_cifique d’in_galit_s, qui est li_e _ l’origine ethnique et raciale. La strat_gie fran_aise d’indiff_renciation compromet l’observation et l’analyse des discriminations”, souligne ainsi Patrick Simon, chercheur _ l’Institut national des _tudes d_mographiques (INED). Le sujet divise au sommet de l’Etat. Dans le prolongement de son plaidoyer pour la discrimination positive, Nicolas Sarkozy s’est clairement prononc_ pour le comptage ethnique. “Je n’ai toujours pas compris pourquoi certains trouvent choquant que l’on r_pertorie en France les cat_gories de populations selon leur origine. (…) Si l’on refuse de reconna_tre la composition de la soci_t_ fran_aise, comment pourrons-nous int_grer ceux _ qui l’on nie leurs sp_cificit_s et leur identit_ ! Cela n’a aucun sens !”, s’est exclam_ le ministre de l’int_rieur, mardi 2 mai, lors de l’examen par les d_put_s de son texte sur l’immigration. Se posant en d_fenseurs du “mod_le r_publicain”, le chef de l’Etat et le premier ministre ont rejet_ toute initiative en ce sens. Ainsi ont-ils obtenu, d_but mars, le retrait d’un amendement s_natorial – adopt_ par les commissions des lois et des affaires sociales – visant _ ce que soit _tabli “un cadre de r_f_rence comprenant une typologie des groupes de personnes susceptibles d’_tre discrimin_es en raison de leurs origines raciales ou ethniques”. Ce “cadre de r_f_rence” devait _tre destin_ _ “mesurer la diversit_ des origines” dans les administrations et les entreprises de plus de 150 salari_s. Le d_bat, qui est intervenu _ l’occasion de l’examen du projet de loi sur l’_galit_ des chances, a tourn_ court. Par l’entremise du s_nateur (UMP) de Paris, Roger Romani, l’Elys_e a fait conna_tre son veto. Quant aux vell_it_s du ministre de l’emploi, Jean-Louis Borloo, et du ministre d_l_gu_ _ l’_galit_ des chances, Azouz Begag, qui s’_taient montr_s ouverts sur cette question, elles ont _t_ balay_es par un arbitrage de Matignon. Pour freiner ce mouvement, Jacques Chirac peut aussi compter sur Louis Schweitzer, qu’il a nomm_ _ la pr_sidence de la Haute Autorit_ de lutte contre les discriminations (Halde). Pour l’ancien directeur de cabinet de Laurent Fabius, le comptage ethnique est une m_thode “lourde de risques”, parce qu’elle ” nourrit une logique de s_paration de communaut_s”. “C’est l’histoire de la poule et de l’oeuf”, r_plique Jean-Ren_ Lecerf, s_nateur (UMP) du Nord et coauteur de l’amendement sur le “cadre de r_f_rence”. “Ce sont les discriminations qui nourrissent le communautarisme, et non l’inverse”, affirme-t-il. “Ignorer la r_alit_ des discriminations est un danger bien plus redoutable pour la France que le communautarisme”, rench_rit Roger Fauroux, ancien pr_sident du Haut Conseil _ l’int_gration et auteur d’un rapport sur “la lutte contre les discriminations ethniques dans le domaine de l’emploi”. Pour lui, le testing et le CV anonyme – des “outils majeurs”, selon M. Schweitzer – ne sont que des “m_thodes d_tourn_es”, que l’on utilise parce qu'”on ne veut pas regarder la r_alit_ en face”. Certains des plus fervents partisans du mod_le r_publicain en viennent eux-m_mes _ douter. “Lorsque le type d’application de mod_le conduit _ l’inefficacit_ et fabrique des exclus, je ne suis pas s_r que la fid_lit_ aux grands principes ait un sens”, affirmait le premier pr_sident de la Cour des comptes, Philippe S_guin, dans un entretien au Monde du 23 f_vrier, o_ il se montrait ouvert _ une forme de recensement par origine ou nationalit_, sous r_serve de confidentialit_. Le d_bat est _galement ouvert au sein des communaut_s religieuses. Alors que le souvenir des fichiers juifs de l’Occupation p_se lourdement sur ce d_bat, le pr_sident du Conseil repr_sentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), Roger Cukierman, s’est dit favorable _ l’instauration de cat_gories religieuses dans le recensement fran_ais. “J’estime que nous avons besoin d’informations. L’ignorance est mauvaise conseill_re et favorise les pr_jug_s”, a-t-il affirm_ dans un entretien au Figaro Magazine du 2 juin, tout en pr_cisant que ce “sujet complexe divise la communaut_ juive de France”. A l’inverse, le pr_sident du Conseil fran_ais du culte musulman (CFCM), Dalil Boubakeur, s’est d_clar_ r_solument hostile _ une telle r_forme : “Vouloir caract_riser les gens par leur religion, c’est se tromper de temps et de R_publique.” Pr_sident du Conseil repr_sentatif des associations noires (CRAN), cr?_ le 26 novembre 2005, Patrick Loz_s entend pour sa part se d_finir haut et fort comme “Noir”. “Refuser de prendre en compte la population noire dans les statistiques de l’Insee, c’est faire comme si elle ne comptait pas”, soutient-il. Si la couleur de la peau appara_t bien comme un facteur de discrimination, les Fran_ais d’outre-mer ne semblent pas pr_ts pour autant _ se ranger dans la m_me “cat_gorie” que leurs concitoyens d’origine africaine. Ce sujet tr_s sensible est l’un des obstacles _ l’instauration d’un comptage ethnique. Il en existe d’autres : “Quel sort r_server aux m_tis, dans une soci_t_ marqu_e par la mondialisation et le m_tissage ?”, s’est interrog_e Bariza Khiari, s_natrice (PS) de Paris, qui redoute, elle aussi, qu’une telle r_forme entra_ne “une communautarisation de la soci_t_”. Le projet du Parti socialiste promet la mise en place d'”un bilan de l’_galit_” dans les grandes entreprises et les administrations. Mais ce dernier n’int_grerait que “des statistiques en fonction du domicile des salari_s”. Compte tenu des fortes r_sistances et r_ticences que susciterait une _ventuelle r_forme, ses partisans revoient leurs ambitions _ la baisse. “On ne peut pas aller plus vite que la soci_t_”, rel_ve Patrick Simon, qui se “contenterait” d_sormais d’un avis de la CNIL permettant de “syst_matiser le recueil des donn_es sur le pays de naissance des parents dans tout l’appareil statistique”. Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon et Laetitia Van Eeckhout

Readings Across The Mediterranean: To Veil Or Not To Veil… That Is Not The Question!

By Waleed Arafa The ban on hijab has stirred a great deal of discussion that has gone far deeper than simply the issue of hijab. “Islamic Identity in European Communities: Abdications and Integration. A Reading in the Current French Scene” was the title of a two-day conference held at the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, as part of the Program for Dialogue of Civilizations. On February 18 and 19, 2004, intellectuals and specialists discussed the issues involved in depth, leaving their audience with a variety of perceptive opinions and questions to contemplate. Discussing “Place” &”Time” The furor over hijab became the mandatory gateway to most of the issues. Dr.Mona Abu al-Fadl began by mentioning the date of the first incident over hijab in France; the year was 1989. She attempted to link it to the global winds of change that were taking place during the period 1989 – 1992. Before then, Muslims had been present in France for years and years without a single problem concerning hijab. Later Dr. Amr Al-Shobaky discussed “Place”. France! Why France in particular and not Britain for instance? The answer, in his opinion, is based on the uniqueness of the French secular model versus other models, especially the Anglo-Saxon model. A third speaker, Dr. Salah Jaa’frawy, argued that secularism should not be used as a comprehensive excuse for such practices, because other European countries have certain tilts towards certain religious groups. The Christian Democratic Party, currently ruling in Germany , where Dr. Salah lives, is an example. He mentioned that there is a race amongst German states to formulate laws banning hijab. Dr. Pakinam Al-Sharqawy confirmed that some people in the West simply like to attribute the problems of Muslims to Islam, and then link the problems of Islam to the problems of Muslim women, finally they reduce all the above to a secondary issue like hijab. She firmly stated, “They are escaping the bigger questions because eventually they will find themselves equally as guilty of Muslims’ problems, and that is a responsibility they do not want to take.”