Middle East

What Not to Read This Summer

Purging English vulgarities in Pakistan


This is the time of year when columnists sneak in an extra few days of vacation by cranking out an often-dreary reading list instead of their usual often-dreary arguments. Everybody from Thomas Sowell (who isn't dreary) to Ellen Goodman (who is) has either published a summer book list already, or surely is about to. This is a special summer, however, because the usual compilations of worthy books have been augmented by a notable list of titles that, according to one group of university savants, should not be read.

This don't-read list is the work of the overseers of Punjab University, a major campus in Pakistan, who have become disturbed at the vulgarity that the school's English majors are being exposed to. Many of these overseers are military men, though their recent review of Punjab U's English syllabus was in fact headed by an academic, a lecturer in English named Shahbaz Arif.

According to the British newspaper, the Guardian, Dr. Arif has drawn up an annotated memo of vulgarisms masquerading as literature that should be purged. "Almost every second text in the [masters] syllabus," he writes, "contains direct/indirect references of vulgarity and sexuality." For example, Dr. Arif objects to English majors reading certain poems because, as he puts it, "Almost every poem has the connotation of sex where the poet wants to take every lady to bed for sexual pleasure." Arif isn't describing Charles Bukowski here; he's describing the 16th century poet, John Donne.

Also appearing on the list is Ernest Heminway's The Sun Also Rises, about which he writes notationally: "All characters sexually astray: men homosexuals; females lesbians/promiscuous; Brett Ashley nymphomaniac and so on." Alexander Pope's 18th century mock-heroic poem "The Rape of the Lock" condemns itself, concludes Dr Arif: "The title of the book [sic] itself shows vulgarity."

Sean O'Casey's play, The End of the Beginning, is also studied in Lahore, and also appears on Dr, Arif's list. The Guardian's Rory McCarthy reports that "Dr Arif makes no specific comment on the text but quotes several passages in which the apparently objectionable phrases are underlined. They include the phrase: 'When the song ended, Darry cocks his ear and listens.' Dr Arif has underlined the word 'cocks.'" O'Casey, by the way, spent his distinguished (though increasingly obscure) career criticizing the Irish church for constraining the joys of his fellow Irishmen. If there is one thing that Arif's memo makes clear (aside from revealing aspects of Arif's own persona), it is that English majors in Lahore, Pakistan have been exposed to an impressive array of Anglophone lit.

The list was apparently spurred by the wife of one of the retired generals who run the campus. She objected to numerous works contained in the syllabus, among them a W.H. Auden poem because it was positive about Jews, a Vikram Seth work because the author is pro-India, and works by Adrienne Rich because she is a lesbian. The woman reportedly told Punjab's English faculty that "We have been tolerant for too long." The general's wife is friends with the wife of Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf. Mrs. Musharraf passed along her friend's concern to the president, who passed it along to the generals, who passed it to Dr. Arif.

Most of Punjab University's English faculty is deeply dismayed and embarrassed by the effort to trim the departmental reading list, blaming the action on the rise of Islamism. One such academic told the Guardian that, "Ordinary, professional liberals feel that there is no space for us in our own town now."