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Saeed Mirza's latest book is a collector's item

Jaimon Joseph, | http://jaithemon

Updated: February 28, 2012, 8:47 PM IST
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Saeed Mirza's latest book is a collector's item
Director Saeed Akhtar Mirza has given another a masterpiece with his new book 'The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun'.

Remember the movie 'Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai?'. Remember watching 'Nukkad' on Doordarshan? Ever wonder what happened to the director who made them?

To be honest, I never knew the name of the director. I just had lovely memories of the work he created. Well Saeed Akhtar Mirza, the man who made those masterpieces is still around. Ironically, I learnt his name not from the visual medium, but from a book.

'The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun' is the master director's second novel. After an entire weekend spent with my nose in its pages, I can attest he still retains his wonderful, offbeat touch.

Don't go in expecting a bitter sweet laugh riot though. The last chapter hints at the reason Mirza wrote this book. It recounts the humiliation Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib suffered at the hands of American soldiers. And remembers the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at George Bush, at that time - the most powerful man in the world.

Are people in the middle-east just a bunch of camel riders and oil sheikhs? Have they ever achieved anything apart from shooting each other, maintaining extensive harems and shouting slogans against western powers?

Try this on for size. Almost everything you know about Western philosophy, medicine, maths, astronomy, chemistry, literature - has its roots in ancient Islamic civilization.

Sounds ridiculous right? Well, Mirza's research seems to back up the claim. The funny thing is - it could have been presented in a thick, boring book that no one would read and that'd lie gathering dust in some university library. Instead, Mirza chose to write a novel, the sort some young kid might pick out on a slow day. And suddenly be transported into a world of wonder.

There are people who write better than Saeed Akhtar Mirza. Brilliant books are ones where you don't even realize you're actually reading words, that you're following a script. They're so bewitching, you just flow along with the story.

This one isn't exactly like that. Characters in the present talk to you. But so do the people they're researching - great folks from the past. In between, there are scribes who fight amongst each other as they translate books from Arabic into Latin, for western audiences. Then there's the author himself, flitting in and out of the narrative without warning, reporting from exotic corners of the middle east.

So yes, there are distractions as you rush through the pages. In hindsight, I wonder if Mr Mirza saw this in his head like a movie - with flashbacks and flash forwards, jump cuts and audio splices. It could be a powerful film, though I'm not sure how well it would do at the box office. Or maybe it'd be a surprise hit, if Shahrukh or Aamir Khan produce it.

Anyway, while there are minor speed bumps - once you're within sniffing distance of the proof for Mr Mirza's claims, you don't feel like putting the book down.

The word 'Algebra' itself was inspired by a book on maths written by Al Khwarizimi. His name was corrupted to form 'Algorizm' which later became the world 'Algorithm'. He figured out how to use 'Zero', which was earlier invented by Sumerians and Indians, to form large numbers.

Modern chemists owe a huge chunk of their basic knowledge and the designs of almost all their instruments to Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who lived in AD 721.

Al Kindi was among the first chemists to write a book on perfumes. He was also the first to give alphabetic notations to musical scales and the first to add an eighth note. But the west credits an Italian musician with those achievements.

Al Razi, Abu al Quasim al Zahrawi and Ibn Sina fathered modern surgery and medicine. Ibn Al Haytham wrote books in AD 1039 suggesting light was made of particles, centuries before Isaac Newton would do the same.

Leonardo Fibonacci, the European credited with inventing fractions and special number sequences unabashedly paid tribute to Arabic traders and scholars he'd learnt them from.

Leonardo Da Vinci, famously credited for inventing the parachute and all varieties of mechanical gadgets might have been inspired by the books of Al Jazari, who lived in AD 1137. Dante Aligeri's Divine Comedy, one of the cornerstones of classical European poetry might have stolen its idea and form from a book written by Prophet Muhammad himself.

Such are the claims the characters in Saeed Akhtar Mirza's book make. He backs it up with references and challenges readers to check the research themselves. What Mirza suggests is that after the west defeated Islamic powers in battle (perhaps around the time of the religious crusades?) - the best books from the east were gradually translated into Latin and Greek.

Almost anything from the Islamic world was looked upon with suspicion at that time. Perhaps for that reason, or maybe just to get false credit and fame, many European scientists simply published these translated books under their own names, after adding whatever little improvements they could.

In just one hundred years from then on, the west which had lived in almost barbaric conditions till then, suddenly flowered into an intellectual and cultural giant. That its sudden glory came by standing on the shoulders of giants who came centuries before them - it has never liked to admit.

Those are hard punches - but Mirza freely admits even Islamic society benefitted hugely from the works of earlier or far away civilizations. At the height of its powers, the Islamic caliphate too had its snobs and naysayers. People suspicious of any outside influences, who believed only they were blessed with God's holy wisdom.

Such people exist today too. As the west declines, chauvinists in China and India are already claiming the future will be entirely ours. What Mirza seems to yearn for is an age of reason. Where civilizations' won't reject each other based just on outward appearances. Where they thirst for true knowledge, no matter where it comes from. Where they treat everyone with respect, instead of bombing them into the dust like we do so often today.

This is a collector's item - a great addition to any bookcase. It would have been so much better if it was also available in local languages. And for much cheaper than the Rs 450 it sells at right now. Stuff like this can get people thinking. For that reason alone, it should be easily available to everyone.

Book: The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun; Author: Saeed Akhtar Mirza; 256 pages; Publisher: HarperCollins

First Published: February 28, 2012, 8:47 PM IST
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