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The Traveler's Luck

V.S. Naipaul's misunderstanding of Islam

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions
Among the Converted Peoples
By V.S. Naipaul
(Random House, 408 pp. $27.95)

Some years ago, in Finding the Centre, V.S. Naipaul wrote of the impulse that sent him on the road to remote places. Always, he said, there was "the blankness and anxiety of arrival," the risk of "not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters." He was a looker, he said, and he would follow his luck: "To arrive at a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without all introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation." There was "glamour" in travel; more importantly, travel took him out of his "colonial shell," it became a substitute for the "mature social experience" that his background had denied him.

By now, after forty years of writing and twenty-two books, after stamping in his own inimitable prose the great themes of the postcolonial world, we recognize with ease the Naipaulian art and sensibility, the Naipaulian themes and settings. After his chronicles in the Caribbean and Argentina and Africa and India and the lands of Islam, after his chronicles of exiles who scrape their countries clean and flee to Western lands but take the life--and the panic--with them, the writer and his subjects have become inextricably linked: the "half-made societies" of the Third World, the "hustlers" of post-colonial politics, the Western sympathizers who go to revolutionary centers "with return air tickets," the promise of revolution making and unmaking those half- made societies.

And we know enough about the man himself, the writer moving among strangers, adding to his knowledge of the world, correcting for the limited world that was given him as a descendant of Indian migrants from the Gangetic plains born in a small island on the mouth of the great South American river, the Orinoco, conceiving for himself a literary ambition beyond Trinidad, away from its stress and its smallness, away from the black power that "undid" that restricted world, and away from his own Indian community and its immemorial customs and phobias. "We read," Naipaul once wrote in a memorable essay on his great exemplar Conrad, "to find out what we already know." We read Naipaul in that way, too. We come to Naipaulian material prepared; not to be startled or surprised, not for the novelty but for the delicacy, the wondrous reworking, the circling yet again of the rich old terrain.

But there came a time, in the mid-1980s, when Naipaul wearied of the politics and the obsessive nature of his themes. There was nothing left to debunk in the postcolonial societies; they had debunked themselves, and the hustlers and the jesters had been shown for what they were. There crept into Naipaul's work in this new phase of his life a spirit of acceptance, perhaps even a measure of atonement. To the extent that he could, he would arrive at some reconciliation with the "dark places" of the earth. This must have come with age, with the peace that he had made with himself and his life in England and his place in the literary world. Why else would he begin his new book with a defensive declaration? "This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion."

This change of tone had been gathering pace. In Finding the Centre (1984), the writer had made his way to the Ivory Coast, to its wet forests, and his chronicle of that journey, "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro," bespoke a new patience with the ways of distant lands. Gone was the old fury with pretense and make-believe. The ritual feeding of the crocodiles, in an artificial lake, on the grounds of President Houphouet-Boigny's ancestral village, was presented on its own indigenous terms: the crocodiles as "totemic, emblematic creatures" representing the chiefs magical authority. At Yamoussoukro, the writer caught a glimpse of an "African Africa" which has always been, in its own eyes, "complete, achieved, bursting with its own powers." A generation earlier, in a chronicle of Mobutu and Zaire, he had been scathing in his depiction of the cull of the ancestors and of the "magical" authority of the ruler. He saw through the thing: the cult of the ancestors as a cover for dependence, the cult of the chief as a cover for authoritarianism and plunder. But this time around he would make no judgments. He was there for "the narrative."

There was a new peace also with India, his ancestral land. After his abrasive portraits of India in An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), there appeared a third chronicle, India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), a rambling account that spoke with some wonder of the emergence in India of a central will, of a vibrant, new society which was making its way past the old cruelties mad the "nullity" of Indian history, Indeed, travel itself was becoming less necessary for the writer, less glamored.

Thus the two major books of the last decade--The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World (1994)--were hybrid works of "imagined autobiography," and works of real literary genius. We can be strangers to ourselves, Naipaul said, and so these two hooks were meant to explore the mystery of his background and the "promptings" of his imagination. The fragments of his life, the inheritance that he was bequeathed, the peopling of the New World, the movement in the second half of this century of a whole class of people unsettled by the dissolution of empires: this was the stuff of these two books. There was a break with the political journalism of his earlier years. He had been captured by the controversies of the postcolonial world and non-Western nationalism, and these two books constituted a kind of reprieve. No more politics, no more wanderings, no more disputatious.

Naipaul's new book is an uneasy mix of the two phases of his writerly life. He is traveling again; and again into contested matters. Beyond Belief is the retracing of an older journey that Naipaul had made in 1979 and early 1980 into four Islamic lands: Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan. The book that grew out of that earlier inquiry, Among the Believers, was not particularly subtle or learned. As he crudely put it, he traveled to these four countries to see "Islam in action." He journeyed into a great storm, his own panic about political Islam magnifying the panic that he found on the road. This knowledgeable man had left home unprepared. He had read little about these countries; instead he put his faith in his own inclinations. And also in the traveler's luck: it would bring him what it would bring him in chance encounters and conversations.

Naipaul's old unease with Islam persists, alas, into his new inquiry. True, the tone is slightly different, There is that opening disclaimer that this is a book about "people" and not "opinion." This time the work is informed by the traveler's desire to be fascinated but neutral, to be a "manager of narrative," to stay in the background. Yet the book's very reason for being, the theme of "conversion" which ties it together (these are "Islamic excursions among the converted peoples")--this is opinion through and through. And it is ill-considered opinion, too.

Consider this early passage, which states the book's central claim and weighs it down, to the point of sinking it.

Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.

This is an odd, obtuse view of religion. Islam--like Christianity, its immediate predecessor--is a world religion. Its worldly and otherworldly ideals are universal. Strictly speaking, everyone outside the Hijaz--like everyone outside Galilee and Calvary--is a convert in these faiths. By this measure of conversion, Egypt is no less a converted land than Iran or Indonesia. Only four thousand horsemen came to Egypt from the Hijaz to subdue Egypt in the seventh century. Most likely Islam became a majority faith in Egypt as late as the fourteenth century. The Coptic faith endured, even as the Coptic language retreated to become the sacred language of liturgy; Egypt had imbued Islam with its own culture and temperament, with the rituals, and the centralized rule, of this unique people of the valley and the river.

No converted society, moreover, took the faith and left it as it was, unaltered. Conquered in 637 by Islam, Iran worked its will on the faith, stamped it with its own cosmology and symbolism and artistic flair and taste for philosophical argument. Iran did not surrender wholesale. Thus the period of "Arab ascendancy" in Islam was brief. The prestige of Arabian descent, the pride of the conquerors, soon dissipated; for the Arabs had given the conquered peoples an instrument of emancipation. That instrument was Islam itself.

After the Arab ascendancy, Islam made its great world-historical way. Hegemony passed from the Arabs to the Persians, then to the Turks. Traders, the movement of people and goods and ideas, took the faith from India to southeast Asia--Sumatra and Java and Borneo. Those "converts" had not known or met the Arabs. Indeed, only the most extreme of Arab nationalists (the ruling stratum in Iraq, for example, themselves descendants of "converts") would concur in the view of Islam put forth by Naipaul. His controlling notion of "conversion represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what he rightly seeks to understand.

In search of authenticity, Naipaul has misconstrued it. No writer today would take his notebook to the Baltics, say, in search of "converted" Christians. Christianity came late to the west Slavs and the Balts; a whole are of polytheism stretched from Saxony to the Arctic Circle. The chroniclers tell us that it was not until 1368 that the Lithuanian dynasty adopted Christianity in return for the Polish crown. Latin Christendom had made its way east of the Elbe with no small measure of difficulty. The first bishoprics were established in the tenth century; and there were violent pagan reactions in the lands of eastern Europe before Christianity, and its bishoprics prevailed in the eleventh century. And for all the ideology of the reconquista, to give another example, the spread of Christianity in that most Catholic of domains in the Iberian Peninsula from its toe-holds in Santiago and Catalonia was similarly a process of conquest and conversion. It was priests and monks from the French theological center in Cluny who did the work of conversion as the kingdoms in the north made their way southward. It was a similar process that played out centuries after the conversion of Persia to Islam; and this process was not in any way a qualification of the authenticity of the new Muslims. Quite the contrary. They were not a falling off, they were a fulfillment.

Five months in four countries; four vastly different societies brought together by the theme of "conversion." Naipaul can plead that his travels yield only fiction or narrative, but the truth is that his readers will come to hint as they have always come to him, in search of authoritative judgments on political and civilizational matters. And Naipaul's "Islamic excursions" are of a piece, unfortunately, with the contemporary tendency to reduce the politics of Muslim societies to Islam, to religious categories. It is a shallow view.

We have just been treated to a great upheaval in Indonesia. The ruler has fallen; a perverted form of capitalism and plunder has imploded under the weight of debt and mismanagement and nepotism. The man at the helm, at once a Javanese king and one of a handful of authoritarian rulers that anti-Communism had thrown on the scene in the 1960s, had become a source of instability. An officer corps from which the ruler had risen stepped in to save the system by dispatching the ruler. This is an utterly secular tale. Its categories are political, profane. There is nothing Islamic about what has just transpired in Indonesia: the same script could have unfolded in a handful of Latin American dictatorships a decade or so ago.

Nor is there anything Islamic about the racial rage toward the Chinese minority in Indonesia. The rage towards, and the envy of, a minority skilled in the ways of the market, but marked by its own difference, is, alas, the common plot of our world. The clever trader, existing in the interstices, living off the fat of the land and the labor of the good sons of the soil, has been the classic stuff of anti-Semitism from the Iberian Peninsula in centuries past to Russia and eastern Europe in more recent times. And this same kind of sentiment lies at the heart of Serbian historiography--the dread and the loathing of the merchants of Sarajevo and the worldliness of Sarajevo. Religion is hardly the only engine of injustice.

In a predominantly Muslim society, it would stand to reason that the language of obedience and the language of rebellion would be phrased in Islamic terms. The pious ruler begets the pious oppositionist. Yet the really remarkable thing about tire unfolding struggle in Indonesia is the reticence of religion. The students who laid siege to the Parliament spoke in familiar secular terms. This was not a reprise of Iran, it was a reprise of another place in the tropics, the Philippines and its "people power" that swept away Marcos and his cronies. The young had wearied of Bapak (Father) and wanted a new beginning. This is not Muslim, it is human.

The agitation in Jakarta included an association of "Muslim intellectuals," but it was domesticated and bought off. Its patron was none other than B.J. Habibie, Suharto's hand-picked satrap and successor: Indeed, one of that association's leading figures, Imaduddin, offers a cautionary tale about the glib imputation of the actions of Muslims to Islam. Imaduddin appears in both of Naipaul's journeys, and he raises, for Naipaul, the risk of being taken in, the risk of looking for belief where there is only need and ambition. On that first passage, fifteen years ago, Imaduddin was a lecturer in engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology and a man on the fringe, a preacher and a rebel. A child of Sumatra (which is wilder and more zealous about the faith than java), he had run afoul of the regime and had been imprisoned for fourteen months. Schooled in Iowa, the son of a man who, in his time, had gone to al-Azhar University in Cairo for religious training, Imaduddin had struck Naipaul as a man of fire and brimstone. "For Imaduddin, as a Muslim and a Sumatran. Indonesia was a place to be cleansed," Naipaul wrote in Among the Believers.

But faith can be a pose. Fifteen years later; the same Imaduddin was a man of the regime. Thanks to Habibie's patronage, he had "shot up." He had a decent house in a decent neighborhood, a Mercedes, a driver, his own television program. He was now in "human resource development." He had become a promoter of Suharto, and had given up on revolution, preaching a "doctrine of accelerated evolution." The faith was tethered to the career, made to serve it. Imaduddin told a visiting journalist this spring that Suharto was a "good Muslim," that the rebellious students had been misguided, that Suharto and Indonesia would ride out the time of troubles.

It is easy to be taken in by people and places we don't really know. On his earlier journey, one of Naipaul's Indonesian informants told him of the confusion--more precisely, the eclecticism--that lay at the heart of the culture and the religions of the place. Naipaul should have paid closer heed. "No one," his informant said, "could say precisely what he was. People said, 'I am a Muslim, but--.' Or 'I am a Christian, but--.'" It is this "but," this ambiguity, that is missing in a narrative of this sort. And so the faith must be invented, and it must be sharp if it is to serve the narrative.

The people of Indonesia lived long with cultural chaos. Islam had arrived here as a religion of India in the latter years of the fifteenth century, in Sumatra and Borneo and the harbors of trade in Java, before it penetrated to the rice plains of the Javanese interior. The process of Islamization was slow and subtle. The princes of the trading harbors of Java's northern coast were the first to cross over to Islam. The tale has been masterfully told by Clifford Geertz in his brief, durable book, Islam Observed, which appeared in 1968. The princes and nobility of Madjapahit, the last of the great Hindu-Buddhist states, had embraced the new faith and left Madjapahit: "a court without a country, an hieratic shell which soon collapsed entirely," as Geertz writes.

Geertz tells the extraordinary tale (mostly a legend, a metaphor, though it is about the life of an historical personage) of Indonesia's conversion to Islam through the life of a Javanese prince named Sunan Kalidjaga. It was Kalidjaga who brought Java from the shadow-play world of djaman Indu or Hindu times, to djaman Islam, on Islamic times. Born the son of a high court official of Madjapahit, Kalidjaga's life mirrored the dislocations of his time, which was a time without order. He drifted from place to place; he was a drinker, a womanizer, and a gambler. Then, in Djapara, one of the harbor states, he happened upon Sunan Bonang, one of the great disciples of Islam.

Bonang had shown him the way to the faith, when the bandit-prince had tried to rob him of his jewelry. Bonang had turned a banyan tree to gold but was indifferent to worldly things. Bonang then left Kalidjaga on the hanks of a river, perhaps for forty years, during which he survived floods and the comings and goings of crowds. He had seen the logic and power of the new faith. Kalidjaga converted to Islam, as Geertz pointedly observes, "without ever having read the Koran, entered a mosque, or heard a prayer." He was a transitional figure between the dying world of Madjapahit and the great interior Muslim state of Mataram, which held sway until the Dutch shattered it in the eighteenth century.

It was folk Islam that had prevailed in Java and Borneo and Sumatra and the Celebes. The Indic tradition had been overthrown, but it had survived, Geertz writes, "stripped of the bulk of its ritual expression but not of its inward temper." Then Dutch dominion had settled in, and Islam had alternated between submission to colonial rule and rebellion. In this great historical see-saw, then, scriptural Islam was a latecomer. It arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the steamships, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the elite education in Cairo's religious schools. Islam, scriptural Islam, had never had the place to itself. The "culture system" of Dutch colonialism had thrown it on the defensive. And the Indic tradition, misted over, had never been extinguished.

It would be hard to fit this kind of eclecticism into Naipaul's chronicle, hard to carry it along. Now and then he recognizes tills complexity, and his informants give write to it. But Naipaul's journey is in search of believers, people who could set countries "on the boil." But societies do not only boil; and in the age of the Iranian revolution it is odd to have forgotten that faith can also be all instrument of obedience, the prop of power.

Consider Abdul Rahman Wahid, whom Naipaul encountered on his trip. Wahid is an influential leader of Indonesia's reformist Muslim movement, Nahdlatul Ulama (literally, the renaissance of the religious scholars), which is said to have more than 30 million adherents. Wahid had followers and he had pedigree: his grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca in the latter years of the nineteenth century and had come back to establish the pesantren, or religious boarding schools, that served as the basis of Wahid's movement. Wahid's lather had been schooled in religious subjects, but he had also acquired knowledge of Dutch and mathematics.

When Wahid inherited the leadership of the movement, he proceeded to take it out of politics. In the recent upheaval in Indonesia. Wahid was a man of caution. He had seen the mix of religion and politics in other Islamic lands and wished to spare his country that incendiary mix. "In our thought." he told Naipaul, "Islam is a moral force which works through ethics and morality." Not for this man were the furies and the simplifications of politicized religion. It was not easy to fit Wahid into Naipaul's narrative, and the writer's exasperation shows. Of Wahid, he writes: "I wanted to get a picture, some conversation, a story. It wasn't easy."

The religion: it is not quite as total and as unworldly as Naipaul fears. It carries also the material world of men and women, and their distress; it gives voice to their needs and their ways. It acts on the skills and the moral development and the material circumstances that are already there. It speaks calmly and confidently when a culture is ascendant and at peace, and it is made to wail when a people are trapped and feel betrayed. In unintended ways, Naipaul's two Islamic chronicles, read side by side, expose the profane forces that fill a religious faith, the ebb and the flow of human grievance expressed in the idiom of religion, the sharpening of the faith in times of distress, and the lapse into routine under more prosaic circumstances.

In the chronicle of 1981, Malaysia was a steamed place, where the Malay rage at the Chinese, the Malay sense that they had been disinherited by the Chinese, dominated the economy, and created a combustible politics, a "general nervousness"--the odd sensation, in a land of steam and river and forest, of "the atmosphere of the ideological state." The fury of the Bumiputras, the sons of the soil, was everywhere: it was comprehensive, "the rage of pastoral people with limited, skills, limited money, and a limited grasp of the world."

But behold Malaysia in Naipaul's new chronicle. Prosperity has tamed the old rage. A young lawyer a Malay, tells the writer that the Malays had become a "trading and manufacturing and innovative people. These are all words you would not have associated with Malays in the past," he says. And there is Nasar. In the old chronicle, he was a Kampung (village) boy in the Muslim Youth Movement, a young man of twenty-five. A generation later he is running a holding company that manages the affairs of eight corporations. "He remembered what he had been in 1979; he didn't put a gloss on it," Naipaul writes. The material world had altered. "The racial anxieties of sixteen years before had been swamped by the great new wealth, and new men had been created on both sides."

We may travel the world in search of a burning faith, but what we find instead are the great material facts that underpin the faith. Life had been easy for the pastoral people of Malaysia, one of Naipaul's Malay informants reflects. You could throw a seed and it would grow, you could put a bare hook in the water and you would catch fish. The Chinese who came from a "four-seasoned country" over the course of the nineteenth century had been more skilled. The Malays had to assimilate the skills of the modern world, so as to catch up. Of course, the material world may alter again in Malaysia, and the prosperity may crack. Back and forth, back and forth, men and women move between faith and the secular world, each a reflection of the other.

At least since the Iranian upheaval of 1979, it has been harder and harder to maintain the distinction between writing about Islam and writing about Muslims. It is a distinction with a great difference; but as a consequence of the eruption in Iran, and the panic that its radicalism caused, a vast and varied world, societies of different temperaments and situations, have come to be arranged and analyzed under the gross rubric of politicized Islam. A whole industry has grown around this subject; it has given writers and journalists with precious little knowledge of distant societies an illusion of familiarity and mastery, a certain absolution from looking at Muslim lands soberly and unapocalyptically, with precision and detail. The subject is awash in intellectual complacency.

The politics must lie in the faith, the pundits and the visitors insist. Like all reductions, this reduction enjoys a certain economy: the ability to shrink distant and diverse societies into a core, a hot and glowing center, that is easy to identify and to explain. It is a useful trick, this trick of finding a faith, the same faith, in the casbah and alleyways of Algiers and among the pastoral, tropical people of the villages of the Malays. It is a curious and unremarked irony, this convergence of outlook between the radical activists of "political Islam," who simplify the world and insist on a single indivisible Islamic umma, and the Western writers who chronicle this breed of religious radicals. For both, the world must be ordered and simplified and imputed a faith that has been "set on the boil."

This large assumption has animated Naipaul's two Islamic inquiries. He gave voice to this sentiment in stark, unadorned terms in one of his meditations on contemporary culture, a talk called "Our Universal Civilization" that he gave at the Manhattan Institute in 1990, midway between his two trips. "Now traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who have been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among a people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among a people who wished to be pure.…No colonization could have been greater than this colonization by the faith." It is a strange thing to say about dais most disabused of writers, but Naipaul's exploration of the Muslims turns out to be insufficiently secular.

"I had only nay notes to go by," he writes in Beyond Belief. Yet in truth he had more than his notes to go by, he had also this large simplifying vision that he brought with him. And therein lie the limitations of the literary journey. The genre of travel writing, the form of the notes, is only what it is; the street yields only what the street yields. The foreign traveler is in a hurry. The language is strange to him, the interior spaces are forbidden to him. There are the guides and the interpreters--this industry of "minders" around the international hotels in the distressed locations on which foreign observers descend in search of the quick sound-bite; and there are the English-language dailies, the Tehran Times, the Jakarta Post, the Indonesia Times; and there are the international hotels, gilded cages which provide shelter from the tumult and increase the traveler's loneliness.

A man of cultural marginality, it is easier for Naipaul to see the pain of other marginal people, even if he cannot extend a similar sympathy to the dominant faith. Of the Chinese of Malaysia, he writes: "I began to have some idea of how little the Chinese were protected in the last century and the early part of this, with a crumbling empire and civil war at home and rejection outside: spilling out, trying to find a footing wherever they could, always foreign, insulated by language and culture, surviving only through blind energy. Once self-awareness had begun to come, once blindness had begun to go, they would have needed philosophical or religions certainties as much as the Malays."

That is the Naipaulian way: the paragraph of intelligence and beauty, the insight that suddenly illuminates places and people that we have not quite known. Those notes that he kept are occasionally gorgeous, the traveler's luck joined to the writer's skill. Consider Naipaul's passage about Linus, a Catholic convert in Java, a poet lamenting the passing of old, simpler times: "Even the rice had changed. 'The old traditional rice was full of savor and taste.' He made a gesture, taking his fingers to his nose. 'The new Filipino rice--you can't eat it in the evening if you cook it in the morning.'" Or this passage about the rupture in his own and his family's soul, the distance in Trinidad from their sacred places in India: "My first eighteen years were spent two oceans away, on the other side of the globe, in the new world, in an island on the month of the one great South American river. The island had no sacred places; and it was nearly forty years after I had left the island that I identified the lack. I began to feel when I was quite young that there was an incompleteness, an emptiness, about the place, that the real world existed somewhere else. I used to feel that the climate had burned away history and possibility." And here is Naipaul writing with graceful penetration about the mohajirs, the Muslim migrants from India, who came in great numbers to the feudal land of Sind:

They had agitated more than anyone else for the separate Muslim state, and they came to Pakistan and Sind as to their own land. They found that it belonged to someone else; and the people to whom it belonged were not willing to let go. The mohajirs became the fifth nationality of Pakistan, after the Baluchis, the Pathans, the Punjabis, and the Sindhis. They were a nationality without territory. And that was where, a generation or two later, the war of Karachi began: with the mohajir wish for territory. They wished Karachi to be theirs; they were a majority in Karachi Their passion, their sense of grievance, was like religion; it was a replay of the agitation by their fathers and grandfathers fifty years before for Pakistan.

It was Iran and its upheaval that prompted those Muslim inquiries of Naipaul; and his pages on Iran are the best of his new book. Here he is traveling into a great disappointment: by now the political faith, Islam in power, had behind it a generation of rule. The distress is everywhere; the faith has been dearly paid for. In a desert south of Tehran, by the vast mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, there is the Martyrs' Cemetery. Naipaul goes there with his interpreter Mehrdad, a university student. "Below the pines and the elms everything was close together, the lines of headstones and picture-holders, the spindly shrubs that grew in the sand, and the flags, hemmed in by the shrubs and trees and not able to flutter, and like part of the vegetable growth." They had died by the tens of thousands, the children of the revolution, in the war with Iraq. The crowds were nearby, at Khomeini's shrine; but here there was hardly an attendant, and the desert dust "had ravaged the aluminum picture-holders.…Some of them were absolutely empty now; sometimes the photographs had decayed or collapsed within the frame." Reality had overwhelmed the revolution's poses: "We went to the blood fountain. It used to be famous. When it was set up early on during the war, it spouted purple-dyed water, and it was intended to stimulate ideas of blood and sacrifice and redemption. The fountain didn't play now; the basin was empty. There had been too much real blood."

He picks up another thread from his earlier journey, and the traveler's luck pays off: he seeks and finds Khomeini's hanging judge, the notorious Ayatollah Khalkhalli. He finds him in Qom. In the old revolutionary days, Khalkhalli was a busy and important man. His revolutionary court in Tehran worked around the clock: it was high and bloody theater, and Khalkhalli played it to the hilt, the revolution's justice and the revolution's spectacle. Hundreds were put to death by Khalkhalli, and the hanging judge was a celebrity. In an audience that he gave Naipaul, he acted like his own jester: "I was a shepherd when I was a boy. Right now I know how to cut off a sheep's head." It was the way of a man who had come into great power; Khalkhalli's bodyguards had rocked with laughter, and Khalkhalli himself, warming to his own lines, had choked with laughter, "showing me his gums, his tongue, his gullet."

But a revolutionary ride is always bumpy, and often it is very dangerous. In the intervening years Khalkhalli lost out. He is now a figure on the fringe. His court, his power, the bodyguards who laughed on cue, are all gone. "He came in now," Naipaul relates. "And it was an entrance. He was barefooted, in simple white, like a penitent.…A short-sleeved white tunic, wet with perspiration down the middle of his chest, hung over a loose white lower garment. Step by dragging step he came in, very small, completely bald, baby-faced without his turban, head held down against his chest, looking up from below his forehead, eyes without mischief now and seemingly close to tears, as though he wished to dramatize his situation and needed pity."

Naipaul catches the pain of Iran, the terrible cruelty of its revolt, in a tale supplied to him by an old Iranian diplomat. The tale has the "quality of a folk myth," the sort of story perhaps "fabricated out of the general need, made up by no one but contributed to by everyone." A middle-aged woman in a chador is eager to have the eyesight of a young man restored; she takes him to a specialist; the specialist examines the boy and sees that he is mutilated beyond rehabilitation. He had lost his hands, his feet. The lady is not related to the boy, but she is always there for him; and the doctor grows curious about the young man and the woman in the chador. He learns from her that she had lost her own son, and that the mutilated boy, disfigured in Iran's war with Iraq, was her neighbor's son. "My own boy, my own son was executed because he belonged to an antirevolutionary group. The person who reported him was this neighbor's son. I am happy my son is dead. He was executed, and that was all. I want to keep this piece of meat alive to take revenge. I want his mother to grieve for him every day."

No Javanese shadow-play here. Here history is martyrdom and revenge. After the exertion, after the flamboyance, the new pain flowed into the country's painful history. "All that could be said was that the country had been given an almost universal knowledge of pain." The ground had burned in Iran; and we have no way of knowing what seeds will germinate in the smoldering earth, and neither does Naipaul.

A traveler can only see the exterior of things. He can render only what stories men and women in harsh places and times are willing to confide to strangers. Naipaul can take us to Qom; we can enter with him and his interpreter and his driver; we can see, through his eyes and his pen, the wonder of the place, of the town of high religions learning in the desert, a town of "an old idea of learning, with all its superseded emblems of color and dress." But this is as far as we, and he, can go; all that we, and he, can see.

He cannot report, for example, on the disputations that flourish in that world. We need more direct testimonies if we are to come to terms with that society and its inflammations. It is a feature of that Islamic civilization (in its Arab-Persian-Turkish zone, to be specific) that the truth of life is to be found beyond and behind the high walls and the drab exteriors, in the tiled courtyards and the private chambers that are meant to keep others out and to keep secrets in. Few hurried travelers, few ghareebs or strangers, are taken beyond the walls and the courtyard. It casts no aspersion on Naipaul's extraordinary talent as a writer to point out that he has no access to the inner precincts of that universe.

Traveling to Malaysia and Indonesia, Naipaul has gone where Conrad had been; and he is animated in no small measure by the calling to retrace Conrad's path. Conrad went to the Dutch East Indies in 1887 aboard the Vidar, a vessel owned by an Arab, which sailed under the Dutch flag and was commanded by an Englishman. He was thirty years old. His experience as a seaman nourished his art, and the archipelago and the waters of Borneo served as the setting of Almayer's Folly, Lord Jim, Youth, An Outcast of the Islands. It is in the Malay setting as well that "The Lagoon," the first short story of Conrad that was read to Naipaul when he was a boy of ten, is situated.

What Conrad found in those harbors, what he bequeathed to us, was the tumult of that world: the clashing colonialisms, in the fight over Borneo between the British and the Dutch; the piracy; the steamships beginning to carry the pilgrims to Mecca and Arabia; the mystery of "the East," and the "thought of men of old, who centuries ago, went that road in ships that sailed no better, to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands, and of brown nations ruled by kings more cruel than Nero the Roman, and more splendid than Solomon the Jew." In his novella Youth, Conrad created what remains, for me, the most arresting image of the making of the modern world and the uprooting of people from traditional ways, the wrenching of the self that an ascendant culture forced on those who happened in its way:

And then, before I could open my lips, the East spoke to me, but it was in a Western voice. A torrent of words was poured into the enigmatical, the fateful silence; outlandish, angry words, mixed with words and even whole sentences of good English, less strange but even more surprising. The voice swore and cursed violently; it riddled the solemn peace of the bay by a volley of abuse. It began by calling me Pig, and from that went crescendo into unmentionable adjectives--in English. The man up there raged aloud in two languages, and with a sincerity in his fury that almost convinced me I had, in some way, sinned against the harmony of the universe.

"Whole sentences of good English," the world remade, the pain of a modernity to which men and women submit, against which men and women rebel: the whole wonder of that world. This is the Conradian standard of which Naipaul has fallen short. He does not capture the whole wonder. For it was not some simplified political and religious creed that Conrad sought and found in those harbors. He came with conceptions, but he made a voyage of discovery. And so he caught truths, deeper and more durable truths about himself and about us all.