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Tuesday, September 10, 2013
A 2007 interview of author Dmitry Chen by Moscow News, upon the original Russian publication of The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas.
Note: Chen wrote and published the second novel in the trilogy – Pet Monkey, which takes place in China, first. The first novel in the trilogy – Pet Hawk – was written second.
Moscow News: The action in Pet Monkey takes place in eighth century China and Pet Hawk in the Arabian Caliphate. But the protagonist is one and the same.
Dmitry Chen: Yes, the first novel (Pet Monkey) tells of the war hero and super spy who arrived [in China] from the Arab Caliphate. There [in the Caliphate] he took part in at least two battles, one of which, on the River Zab, decided the fate of dynasties: the Umayyads were cast aside and the Abbasids rose to power. And after the battle on the River Talas, the border between the Arab and Chinese worlds was drawn. Amazingly, this was in the eighth century!
MN: But Arab and Chinese culture, apparently, are very different?
Chen: Yes. I was aided by the fact that my hero, a healer, super spy and loner, is neither Chinese nor Arab. He comes from somewhere in between, from Samarkand; the Chinese and Arab cultures are both external to him, as it were. He immigrated to China after the Arab takeover [of his homeland], as was the case with many who lived in Samarkand. Yet he was also in it for the money. He represents a third civilization – Central Asia before the Arabs. The Arabs were my hero’s enemy; two generations of his family fought against them. Yet surprisingly he gradually begins to understand what kind of people they are, what motivates them, and in the end he joins with them in an alliance of sorts.
MN: Can writing rest simply on book knowledge?
Chen: I know Central Asia because my family is from there. By profession, I am a Sinologist. As to the Arabs... [After writing Pet Monkey], at first I thought I would write a prehistory of my hero in a series of short stories, essays and portraits – for myself. But then a woman appeared in his life and the novel came to life. I am happy to have gotten acquainted with the extraordinary Islamic world, with Arab civilization. It is a stunningly beautiful world built upon poetry. Poetry, albeit sad poetry, was the entire history of the Arabs. This is a people that conquered half the world practically by accident – there were no particularly violent battles. And, not knowing how to administer the world that had fallen into their laps, the heirs of the Prophet Muhammad lost their empire and it passed to a more educated people – Arabs, yes, but from an Iranian dynasty. This is essentially the time described in the book.
MN: You spoke of the Arabs’ “accidental” conquest of half the world. Is this true? Won’t the prophet’s people curse you?
Chen: Muhammad himself did not conquer anything. His heirs stumbled into a situation where Byzantium and Iran had been worn out by war with each other. These two huge empires were situated directly alongside the Arabs. And insofar as they were weakened, it was relatively easy for the Arabs to conquer Iran, Central Asia (although they ran into some serious opposition there), and a significant portion of Byzantium.
I was actually rather surprised to learn how willingly the Christians in Byzantium, tortured by religious disagreements and harassment, chose to live under the Arabs, because they welcomed them with a greater degree of freedom and religious tolerance. The Arabs knew they could conquer the world with their weapons and ideas, but they surely did not expect it to be as easy as it was to defeat Northern Africa, or a part of Spain. In general, history is not very just. Much happens of its own accord, thanks to the mistakes of some or the enthusiasm of others.
MN: The Arab and Chinese mindsets are rather different from one another, no?
Chen: These are, in reality, two different worlds, yet they have much in common. At the very least, during the time that I describe in the novels, everyone wrote poems. This was a very fertile time for poetic creation. It was a form of life – people lived through poetry. On the other hand, the world was more unified, and people had no less contact with one another than they do in our present airplane age. Both the Arabs and the Chinese had large and abiding interests in what was going on beyond their own borders. Chinese self-isolation came only later.
As concerns the Arab culture of Islam, well, in two words, it is simply beautiful. I recall how, in 1988, the Malaysian Minister of Religious Affairs said to me, “The first behest of our religion is to strive for knowledge.”
I am always surprised how similar the world religions are one to another, how much their holy books have in common. It is as if one book was translated into the languages of all the different cultures, back at the time of their formation.