"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Friday, December 30, 2011

December Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi -- "a memoir in books"; see previous post

At a café run by an Armenian in Iran -- "...forever I shall see on the glass door next to the name of the restaurant, which was in small letters, the compulsory sign in the large black letters: RELIGIOUS MINORITY.  All restaurants run by non-Muslims had to carry this sign on their doors so that good Muslims, who considered all non-Muslims dirty and did not eat from the same dishes, would be forewarned."  (pg. 180)

"'Both Yassi and I know that we have been losing our faith. We have been questioning it with every move. During the Shah's time, it was different. I felt I was in the minority and I had to guard my faith against all odds.  Now that my religion is in power, I feel more helpless than ever before, and more alienated.' She wrote about how ever since she could remember, she had been told that life in the land of infidels was pure hell. She had been promised that all would be different under a just Islamic rule. Islamic rule! It was a pageant of hypocrisy and shame. She wrote about how at work her male supervisors never look her in the eye, about how in movies even a six-year-old girl must wear a scarf and cannot play with boys. Although she wore the veil, she described the pain of being required to wear it, calling it a mask behind which women were forced to hide. She talked about all this coldly, furiously, always with a question mark after each point."  (pg. 328)

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer -- The author discusses our world of globalism and multiculturalism by visiting and reporting from airports (focus LAX), the "global marketplace" (Hong Kong), "multiculture" (Toronto), the Olympics (focus Atlanta), the Empire (focus on England) and "the alien home" (his life as a guy with Indian heritage who was born in England and grew up some there and California living in Japan with his longtime girlfriend and her two children. Oh, and his first name is after an Italian guy....so there.)

"To many I know from the New World, the Japanese response to every setback, from terrorists to burning houses to long hours, crowded trains, and sudden deaths - Shikataganai, or 'It can't be helped' - sounds fatalistic and too ready to surrender power to the heavens. But to me, coming from a California where it sometimes seems as if everyone is restlessly in search of perfection in his life, his job, his partner, and himself, it feels bracing to hear of limits that imply a sense of past as well as of future. A republic founded on the 'pursuit of happiness' seems a culture destined for disappointment, if only because it's pursuing something that, by definition, doesn't come from being sought: a culture founded, however inadvertently or subconsciously, on the First Noble Truth of Buddhism - the reality of suffering - seems better placed to deal with sorrow, and be pleasantly surprised by joy.  In a world that's overheating with the drug of choice and seeming freedom, Japan, for all its consumerist madness, suggests, in its deeper self, a postglobal order that knows what things can really be perfected (streets, habits, surfaces) and what cannot."  (pg. 284)

Two Birthdays in Baghdad by Anna Prouse -- The author is an Italian journalist and emergency medic and this book was translated from Italian. I liked reading her thoughts on people she met in Iraq - both natives and foreigners. Her thoughts on Iraqi inbreeding (pg. 38) and Iraqis' thoughts of Americans jogging for the fun of it (or health benefits pg. 48) were interesting.  Also she told how the nursing profession was looked down upon for women (pg. 90) and I questioned again why the Americans allowed the people to ransack everything. Even IVs were ripped out of people's arms! How could (1) the Americans allow this and (2) the Iraqis do this?  (pg. 94)  The story of Saba being assassinated was sad. I enjoyed her trip to visit Iranian resisters who were given sanctuary in Iraq. These were people Saddam supported because they were against their leaders. The Americans didn't send them back because they would be imprisoned or killed.  I didn't know they existed inside Iraq. I also liked the trip to Kurdish Iraq to celebrate the Persian new year festival.

My Prison, My Home by Haleh Esfandiari -- A rather interesting account of a sixty-seven year old grandmother's time in solitary confinement after the Iranian government decided she was working to overthrow the Islamic Republic.  Years prior to the revolution, she had married a Jewish man. She admitted this was an oddity even then, but not criminal as it was under the new leadership. It was interesting to me how her interrogators brought up this fact and her thoughts on this being equivalent to adultery and would she then be stoned?  This book made me see how evil the Iranian regime is.

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi -- Oddly enough this lady was the lawyer of the lady in the previous book. I didn't realize that when I checked out both books. This book was great. I really really enjoyed reading of this Nobel Peace Prize winner who has fought for human rights in Iran from Iran (she didn't leave her country to fight from abroad).  I was dismayed as she reported of how she was stripped of so many rights and even her job as a judge once the Islamic Republic was founded. She was no shah-lover and was fine with his removal, but she quickly found out that the Islamists taking over was not good for women.  She has some great thoughts throughout the book. It's one of the best I've read lately.; see previous post for more on this book

Words to Live By; has no author listed just from Bethany House Publishers -- this is a book with 60 words: "reflections and insights on the most life-changing and thought-provoking words in the Bible" - I must say the one on worry was excellent and really spoke to me; I read this one to Samer - one word per day but not every day as we started this book back in May and only finished it this month!

Unveiled: Nuns Talking by Mary Louden -- the author interviews a few nuns from several different orders talking about their growing-up years, their reasons for becoming nuns, their outlooks on life and more; see previous post for a few quotes

A German Jewish lady speaks of leaving Germany for England at age 12 to escape the horrors of Hitler.  In England she learns and speaks only English because being German is suspect there during the war years. She observes later in life: "I didn't belong anywhere, and also, in terms of language, I stopped learning German by the time I was twelve and so never developed an adult vocabulary, and yet I don't feel that English is my own language."  (pg. 66)

My Guantanamo Diary: the Detainees and the Stories They Told Me by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan -- I've had this library book on my list for a few months now and I finally decided to read it. I had always thought the Gitmo prisoners were hard-core bad guys, but now I come away thinking maybe most of them are guys who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - like at a time when turning in political enemies would give you a handsome reward!  When Mahvish told, for instance, that the per capita income of Afghanistan in 2006 was $300 or 82 cents a day and a US bounty was $5,000 to $25,000 - she said in US dollars that was like the average American household (which made in 2006 $26,036) getting a $2.17 million reward!  And she points out that tribal alliances and religious conflicts make for easy enemies in that part of the world.  One Gitmo prisoner was turned in by his own cousin because the two had been fighting the night before. So yeah, I came away wondering how many innocent folks are being kept there. Such a horrible situation and bad thing for the US to be doing.

Walking to Vermont by Christopher S. Wren - Upon retiring from the New York Times at age 65 Mr. Wren walks from Times Square in New York City to the Green Mountains of Vermont much of it along the Appalachian Trail. He has a dry sense of humor, tells tales of the people he meets - complete with trail names like Storyteller, Knute, Flash, Seven States, introduces me to trail magic and more. A good, easy, end-of-the-year read.

I also liked reading this because last year when we went to Damascus, Virginia, we saw some of those hard-core trail people getting supplies and also we stood on the Appalachian Trail as it passed through a playground near where we were staying.

I found the picture of me on the App Trail!

Tomorrow is the last day of 2011. I wish you all a joyful 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 Meme

Since the year is mostly over I figure I can go ahead and post this now since I have some time! :)

1. What did you do in 2011 that you’d never done before?

visited the Cherokee Indian Reservation in the North Carolina mountains

Can you find me?

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I didn't make any that I recall.  No, I don't think so.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

my sister in law so I got a new nephew this year, Zach!

He's a keeper!

4. Did anyone close to you die?

no, but the pastor of the very small church I attended growing up died on November 10; he was 86

5. What countries did you visit?

none although Andrew went to Kenya so I felt I visited it through pictures and his stories

6. What would you like to have in 2012 that you lacked in 2011?

hmmm,maybe a trip somewhere interesting; a settled soul; consistent hope and thankfulness despite life's circumstances

7. What date from 2011 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

losing weight without really trying

9. What was your biggest failure?

inconsistency in faith

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

well, the Shiatsu massage pillow is so rough it bruised my backbone - ouch!

11. What was the best thing you bought?

meals for the elderly through our county's Meals on Wheels program

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Michael - as usual he's such a wonderful young fellow

Love him!

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Bashar al-Assad's

14. Where did most of your money go?

probably health insurance and taxes

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

to be honest, I rarely get "really, really, really excited" about anything as it's not my temperament, but what I loved doing this year was spending time with my nephews and I was really excited when Andrew came home from Kenya (but don't tell him)

They're baaaaack!

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2011?

Peace,Peace, Wonderful Peace -- my mom sang it at my former pastor's funeral; he always said he wanted her to sing it at his funeral so she did

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

i. Happier or sadder?

ii. the same

iii. Thinner or fatter?

iv. a bit (and I mean a bit) thinner although Christmas gatherings may have reversed that in recent days

v. richer or poorer?

vi. well, Andrew just broke his finger, had surgery and went to Kenya in December so ...  

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

traveling - I missed our summer beach trip due to Hurricane Irene coming through that weekend

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

worrying, being fearful

20. How will you be spending Christmas?

with family after church

21. How many one-night stands?


22. What was your favorite TV program?


23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

I try not to hate people, but I suppose I dislike some people more this year than last (see # 13 for starters)

24. What was the best book you read?

Wow, I just checked my end-of-the-month lists and was reminded of how many good books I read this year. It's a tough choice as there is no one book that stands out as my absolute favorite. I suppose it depends on what genre you are interested in. Since I have to choose, I'll go with Girl Meets God which I read in February if you care to go back and see what I noted about it.  Some books I remembered so well, I could hardly believe it had been several months since I read them.  They seemed like books I was reading just a few weeks ago not back in January or March!

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Juan, my brother in law's brother who visited for a couple of weeks from Venezuela

such a sweetheart

26. What did you want and get?


27. What was your favorite film of this year?

I only watched 2 movies, The Bucket List and Steel Magnolias; both were good and both made me cry; I'll choose the first as my favorite since I'd not seen it before and the second as my favorite because of the great southern accents

28. What did you do on your birthday?

went to a dog show with Stephanie and Michael during the day and out with Andrew for supper at Ruby Tuesday

29. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2011?

comfort is key
Me and the Ninja Child on Halloween

30. What kept you sane?

I'm not sure if I am

31. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

I love all the characters on N.C.I.S. and wish I'd been watching this show for the years it's been on TV (I guess I could get the past seasons on DVD eventually, right?)

32. What political issue stirred you the most?

the hypocrisy of so many people on the Arab Spring and more; so I guess foreign policy once again

33. Who did you miss?

talking to Louai from London once he moved back to Damascus

34. Who was the best new person you met?


35. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2011.

If used correctly, Facebook can be a tool for learning a lot about a variety of viewpoints!  And oftentimes it's fun meeting new people, but hard to tell them goodbye.
Come again soon, Juan!

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Unveiled: Nuns Talking"

Here are a few quotes from Unveiled: Nuns Talking by Mary Louden that I found worthwhile to share.

"When someone dies here the attitude is one of rejoicing: we have an extra recreation day. Yes, really!  There've been five old ones go since I've been here, and they've been really beautiful moments, with the whole community gathered around the person that's dying and the priest there as well. It really is lovely, and I don't think I've ever seen anybody shed a tear. They're all thinking, lucky thing!" (pg. 53) -- Angela Therese, Carmelite Community, Darlington, County Durham 

I love this attitude about death!

"Within the Church, we're going to be faced with the question: do we really exist to serve people, and to attend to them in their needs?  Or do we exist to impose ideologies?" (pg. 178)  -- Lavinia, Institute of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Hampstead, London

Yes, really!

"Good does not exist without evil, and you can't have dark without light, but in my own appreciation, if God's hadn't allowed evil, then we would not know it,and we would almost be puppets. If good was all that existed, then I could only choose good, and it wouldn't be a proper choice. ... We search for the light, and it is an ongoing quest of humanity to find answers to these questions. Yet ultimately I believe we cannot find them here.  In the end, I have to say, 'I believe this. It doesn't hinder my reasoning, but it is beyond my reasoning.' I have to be prepared all the time to accept that reason is great, but that it isn't infinite. There is a limit to reason." (pg. 198) --  Renate, Community of The Holy Name, Derby

I love that she recognizes that reason has its limits! Tell me again why we expect to fully understand God as if saying our religion is logical means it's better somehow?

"And I believe that the Christian faith is not the faith of a book or dogma: it is the acceptance of a personal invitation. It is like someone saying to you, 'You are important to me, therefore come and join my company.' It sounds very simplistic and very primitive, but I believe that that is what it is."  (pg. 204)  --  Renate, Community of The Holy Name, Derby

Relationship rather than dogma...yay.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Last night I finished reading Iran Awakening by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. She had lots of really interesting things to say dealing with both Iran and the United States and our history together and apart. These are just a few of the many things that took my attention.   You'll just have to read the rest for yourself when you buy the book (or borrow it from the library as I did!)

"Ever since that day, the twenty-second of Bahman has been celebrated as the date of the revolution's victory.  In Persian, we do not say the revolution was born, that it happened or came to pass; we require an oversize verb, and so we say the revolution was victorious.  That day, a feeling of pride washed over me that in hindsight makes me laugh. I felt that I too had won, alongside this victorious revolution. It took scarcely a month for me to realize that, in fact,I had willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise. I was a woman, and this revolution's victory demanded my defeat."  (pg.38)

A former judge, Shirin was now relegated to a secretary in the same court in which she used to preside.  Because women couldn't be judges apparently.

Shirin enjoyed reading several newspapers every day.  As the Islamic Republic started printing their new penal code, she felt she was "hallucinating" as she read how her value had just been cut in half and women's rights were stripped. She said it seemed they "had apparently consulted the seventh century for legal advice."  (pg. 51)  She felt so unsettled about these laws where her husband remained a person and she "became chattel"  that she talked with her husband about how he'd been "promoted above" her.  He agreed to a postnuptial agreement where she had the right to divorce him and primary custody of the children if they divorced.  The notary looked at her husband like he'd gone mad.

Once when the family went on a skiing trip, Javad (her husband) rode the men's bus while Shirin and their daughters got on the women's bus.  Unfortunately something about their vacation plans roused the suspicion of the bus driver so she was questioned.  Her husband's bus had already left so he couldn't vouch for her. 

'I'm sorry,' he said obstinately. 'I can't let the bus depart.'

... 'This is absurd,' I said, 'It's not fair to the other people on that bus.'

'There's only one solution,' ... 'I have to call your mother and see if you have permission to go skiing.'

And that is how I was forced, at the age of forty-five, to dial up my mother and say, 'Maman, can you please tell this man that I'm allowed to go skiing?'''  (pg. 101)

She said her mother teased her about this later saying next time she might not give permission.

"The suicide rate among women rose after the Islamic Revolution, commonly taking the form of self-immolation.  This tragic exhibitionism, I'm convinced, is women's way of forcing their community to confront the cruelty of oppression. Otherwise, would it not simply be easier to overdose on pills in a dark room?"  (pg. 109)

I think we all remember a year ago when a young fruit vendor in Tunisia did the same thing. Many believe his act paved the way for 2011's Arab Spring.

On a somewhat related note, I heard on the news a bit ago that THE PROTESTER is Time magazine's person of the year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

That "Piece of Cloth"

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Mr. Bahri could not understand why we were making such a fuss over a piece of cloth. Did we not see that there were more important issues to think about, that the whole life of the revolution was at stake? What was more important, to fight against the satanic influence of Western imperialists or to obstinately hold on to a personal preference that created division among the ranks of the revolutionaries?  These might not have been his exact words, but they were the gist of his language. In those days, people really talked that way. One had a feeling, in revolutionary and intellectual circles, that they spoke from a script, playing characters from an Islamized version of a Soviet novel.

It was ironic that Mr. Bahri, the defender of the faith, described the veil as a piece of cloth. I had to remind him that we had to have more respect for that 'piece of cloth' than to force it on reluctant people.  ...

What could he think? A stern ayatollah, a blind and improbable philosopher-king, had decided to impose his dream on a country and a people and to re-create us in his own myopic vision.  So he had formulated an ideal of me as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim woman teacher, and wanted me to look, act and in short live according to that ideal.  Laleh and I, in refusing to accept that ideal, were taking not a political stance but an existential one.  No, I could tell Mr. Bahri, it was not that piece of cloth that I rejected, it was the transformation being imposed upon me that made me look in the mirror and hate the stranger I had become.  (pgs. 164-165)

"The Islamic Revolution, as it turned out, did more damage to Islam by using it as an instrument of oppression than any alien ever could have done." (pg. 109)

As I've read this book so far, I've thought of the elections coming up in 2012 in the United States.  And, of course, just recently Tunisia and Egypt held their own first post-Ali/Mubarak elections.   I like to learn from books and what I've learned from this book about a lady living through the Iranian revolution is this:  beware voting for people who would seek to oppress others in order to re-create their dreams of an ideal nation or appeal to a voting bloc with those dreams.  Beware of politicians who agree to sell the country to the devil in order to keep their power in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.  Let's truly have freedom and justice and the pursuit of happiness for all.  Let's allow God to be God and not seek to be Him as we impose our visions of a perfect world on others.  Let's live Micah 6:8.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

I think that's more than enough to keep us busy without meddling in others' affairs, don't you?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November Books

Another month has come and gone. Thanksgiving last week was great!  I love that the weather has been on the warm side.

Here are the books I finished reading this month.  The last one I finished just about an hour ago. I wasn't sure if I'd finish it or not, but I did! 

Hope you all are doing well!

Lipstick Jihad
by  Azadeh Moaveni   -- I remembered seeing this review by Muslimah Media Watch back when I used to follow that blog, so when I saw this book in the library,I decided to read it. It's a memoir of a lady who grew up in California and later went to Iran where she found she was too American for some.  Here is an interview you may find interesting.; see previous post for excerpts from this book that I found interesting

The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World by Chris and Ted Stewart -- I found this on the new book shelf at my local library and found it rather interesting. The authors claim freedom is not the norm and have chosen 7 historical events that they say were major "what if" moments.  Their choices range from Jerusalem not being destroyed by Assyria to the Mongols and Muslim armies not getting farther into western Europe to the Battle for Britain to the conversion of Constantine.  I enjoyed the history that I learned from this book.

Looking for Lovedu: Days and Nights in Africa
by Ann Jones -- another interesting traveling story this one focusing on the author's mission to find Lovedu and the queen who rules her people. Along the way, the reader is informed of problems with the vehicle, border crossings, corrupt officials, cranky co-travelers as well as the depths of mud, mud and more mud in Zaire!  Quite a good book. I really enjoy learning more about other areas of the world through these types of books!

Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World by Fatima Mernissi -- Overall I think I liked this book although some things perplexed me.  This was written soon after the first Gulf War so it was a bit strange reading about Iraq and the Arab world's reaction back then having now gone through this other war concerning Iraq that we are trying to get out of none too soon!  The author scolded the West, the Arabs, the men. She gave me much to consider and at times I wasn't sure if she were writing tongue-in-cheek or if she were serious.  I had more than this to share, but I will refrain. But since I shared this bit on Facebook, I'll just leave it here.

"The supremacy of the West is not so much due to its military hardware as to the fact that its military bases are laboratories and its troops are brains, armies of researchers and engineers. ... The arms industry provides an enormous number of jobs in other sectors, such as electronics and communications. ... The West creates its power through military research, which forces underdeveloped countries to become passive consumers. The weakness of the Arab nations stems from the fact that they buy weapons instead of choosing to do their own research. .. The Arab states prefer to import finished technological products, especially arms, rather than train a powerful corps of scientists, which would risk destabilizing their authority from within."  -- (pgs. 43, 50)

The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel -- "A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ" - actually the book is a bit old (published in 2007) so it's not current current, but I appreciated it just the same.  The author talked to experts about such things as other ancient documents being found that are just as credible as the four gospels, Christianity borrowing from pagan teachings and myths, the resurrection, the Church tampering with the texts and so forth. See my earlier post for more on this book

The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing provides "The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation" as the author picks apart the theology of dispensationalists and those believing the End Times arrive with an escape plans for all true Christians and a blood bath and utter destruction for planet Earth.  The author makes her case by talking quite a bit about the Left Behind series and the dangerous way it shapes American thinking about the rest of the world and foreign policy.  She ultimately believes in the saving power of the "wonder working blood of the Lamb" which left me remembering Paul's words about overcoming evil with good.  She tells us the true message of Revelation is that God is with us through all life's tribulations and that was personified as Jesus - God in the flesh come down to dwell among humans to be with them through storms and life's trials. 

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant -- this book is like a Jewish Midrash with Dinah, the daughter of Jacob (Israel) telling her story of growing up with four mothers and eleven brothers (she never knew Benjamin in this book until much later).  I remember when Amber posted on this book ages ago and recently when someone else mentioned it,I remembered to look for it that day at the library. (It just so happened I was headed there to get new books!  For the record, Amber, at the library I went to, they had this book in Christian Fiction...haha.) 

Dudes of War by Benjamin Tupper -- curious about what soldiers do when they aren't out on a combat mission?  This book has short chapters featuring people such as Shrapnel, The Greek, Lancelot, Deathwish, Casanova,  Mr. OCD and so forth as the author tells about his experiences in Afghanistan. Read how the digital age has made it possible for our soldiers to enjoy women when there are very few women around (Afghanistan is not like Vietnam with prostitutes waiting for our soldiers' attentions; the author admits how he develops a "foot fetish" of sorts looking for pretty nail polish and high heels in a country where women are completely covered), how the soldiers compete for having the best gear, how alcohol is technically forbidden to them there, yet it's often available anyway. He briefly discusses blogging, humanitarian assistance (in winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans), loving the Hazara (which made the Pashtun interpreters angry), PTSD, religion and so forth.

"The soldier does not operate in a black-and-white world, so to romanticize or demonize both miss the target.  The soldier is the fusion of Christ and Judas, the wolf and the sheep, and the aggressor and the victim. We are capable of altruism and moral failure at any given moment on any given day.   Soldiers recognize this fact perhaps better than anyone, but that doesn't mean they agree on what constitutes altruism and moral failures.  Soldiers who serve in the same army, under the same flag, and in the same uniform, will interpret their actions and justifications in starkly different ways."  (pg. 105)

Eclipse of the Sunnis by Deborah Amos -- see previous post for more information on Iraq refugees in neighboring countries

Also I found this of interest:

"Without waging war, Iran had skillfully expanded its political influence in places that before 2003 had been under Arab sway, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine.  The Arabs - above all the Sunni powers - had lost ground everywhere. Even the radical Sunni movements, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, were increasingly dependent on Tehran. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah were furious about Iran's growing reach into the Arab heartland but what could they do about it? The American invasion that had removed Iraq from the balance-of-power equations on the Sunni side had tilted the region towards Tehran. The Sunni powers shuddered to think of living under the embrace of Shiite mullahs with nuclear arms."   (pg. 178)

Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia by Peter Theroux -- see previous post about Saudi Arabia in the 1980s for excerpts from this book

Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller -- see previous post

Interesting fact: After the building of the Transcontinental Railroad groups of Chinese men dug in the Sierra Nevada. They "would come on pilgrimages to search for the graves of their fellow workers. Beneath simple wooden stakes lay bodies buried with wax-sealed bottles holding pieces of cloth inscribed with the deceased's name and native village.  These remains, thus discovered, would be exhumed and shipped back to China; in all, twenty thousand pounds of bones would make this final journey."  (pg. 102)

Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman -- Faced with a struggling marriage and a trial separation, the author heads to Mexico to live among indigenous people. Rita wasn't content to stay in the touristy spots, but went to the villages where not many - if any - foreigners travel.  She connects with people this way in Mexico and Nicaragua, later travels to Israel hoping to find some connection with "her" people (fellow Jews).  Her travels take her to the Galapagos Islands and Indonesia where she spends parts of 8 years living in Bali and traveling to the Indonesian side of New Guinea.  She also talks about her life in New Zealand, Thailand and the United States. Unlike most of the travel books I've read this year where people talked with natives for short times, this book was different in that the author often lived with native people for weeks, months or years at a time. It was a great way for me to learn more about Balinese culture and other parts of the world.  Learn more about Rita at her website.

The Early Arrival of Dreams by Rosemary Mahoney tells the story of an American woman who lived in China for a year as an English teacher back in the 1980s. It was good reading her impressions of the Chinese people, cities, food, university and so forth. Also I enjoyed reading how they interacted with her.

Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels -- This book is about "the Iraq war as seen by NPR's correspondent" and it includes a few months before the war started and the couple of months after. At first I was a bit bored thinking I'd heard most of this before, but I grew to really enjoy the book as the author shared about what happened on the ground once the war started, the people's reactions and such things.  Interesting tidbit:  Russian was useful to her as a second language since she didn't know Arabic and many of the Iraqis she met didn't know English.  I liked that she tried to verify which civilian neighborhoods the US bombs hit and which other reported stories were true (or not).  I was saddened to read how the US troops didn't stop the looting (except for the oil ministry *ahem*) saying they were not a police force.  Yet they had just destroyed things and left the looters to wreak havoc.  The author said the bombs were really accurate for the most part, but the ground war once the troops came to Baghdad showed how ill prepared our military was for the pandemonium of a people recently freed. She said many Iraqis feared themselves and I see why after reading of the looting plus seeing how things have turned out the last several years with the sectarian fighting.  I enjoyed the reporting on how the Iraqi people reacted to Saddam's statue coming down. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hijabs, Beards, Queues: outward ways we identify and submit

It's rather interesting how we do things to either identify with others or perhaps show our submission. 

Many Muslim women will choose to wear head scarves in order to do one or the other or both. I've heard some argue that they don't believe God requires them to cover their hair, however, they want to wear scarves in order to identify themselves as Muslims.

Probably the same with Amish and Mennonite women who cover their hair.

I think the Taliban required a fist-length beard for Afghani men in order to identify with proper Islamic standards.

And, if memory serves, there are Old Testament rules about how Israelite men were to keep their beards as well as the requirement for circumcision.

I'm currently reading Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. It's about "the 120 Chinese boys who came to America, went to school, and revolutionized an ancient civilization."  The plan was that these 12-14 year old boys would be educated in American high schools and universities such as Yale and possibly study at military academies so that China could learn about technology and military might so they wouldn't always be dependent on western imports and could grow and defend themselves properly.  (This was 1872, by the way.)  These boys were to remain stateside for 15 years before heading home.  (I've not read far enough in the book to see if they stayed that long.  Presently the first high school graduates, who'd been in the US for about five years, are beginning studies at Yale.)

Reading some of the cultural differences made me smile especially since one lady, in a display of motherly affection I suppose, kissed the boy who was staying in her house.  This boy had only bowed his head four times to his own mother as a way of saying goodbye for his fifteen year travel and he later wrote that he had not been kissed since infancy prior to this New England lady kissing his cheek!   Of course the other Chinese boys giggled at this public display of affection.

Anyway, I digress. The reason this book reminded me of hijabs and Jewish beards, ways we identify with others and/or submit was talk of the queue, the hairstyle that Chinese men at this time were forced to wear in order to show their submission to the Qing Dynasty.  I remember the boys wanted to blend in more with their American peers as their Chinese robes and long braids were cause for teasing.  Their Chinese sponsor was able to get permission for them to wear western clothes, but they could not cut their hair. They were allowed to hide the braids in hats or under their clothes, however.

I like this book because I have also learned some about Confucian teachings. Did you realize before they were made to submit to Qing queues, most Han Chinese wore long hair because Confucius said we inherit our hair from our ancestors so we should not damage it?

Can you think of other ways (e.g., hairstyles, clothes, circumcision) that we show outward identification and/or submission?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Observations on Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

If you've read any of my posts this year, you may know I've enjoyed a number of books by Westerners traveling through Arabia and other parts of the world. I find it such an interesting way to learn more about the variety of cultures, the religions, the people, the foods, the animals, everything. Of course they are told from specific people's eyes where the natives' habits may seem curious or strange, but that's part of what I love about reading books or blog posts of those visiting the United States. I like to see what stands out to people, what they find noteworthy, what they find worth sharing.

This book Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia by Peter Theroux tells of the author's adventures in Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the 1980s as he was searching for information on what happened to Moussa Sadr. He wrote a book about that, but this one is about other stuff that happened during his time in the Middle East. 

Peter learned Arabic, made friends with Arabs and did his best to explain Arab culture to visitors so the visitors would have a better understanding of the Arabian ways.  Please keep this in mind as you read the following excerpts because I don't want you to get the wrong impression that his book was only about this stuff I noted.  I guess these are just the funny and odd things that stand out the most to me. Actually there is so much more - like the man who wanted to convert Peter to Islam and then asked if he had any girls (American? British? Filipino?) available so he could have a good time.  When one day Peter decided to say yes that he has available girls and they are Saudis, the man got extremely angry and never spoke to him again!  Must be one of those cultural things about MEN that I will never understand!

Since this book's information is quite old, I do wonder as I'm reading how much has changed since Peter lived in Arabia.


Peter was driving in Saudi Arabia when his car slid into a ditch. A police car arrived and the officer checked his driver's license which was issued in Peter's home state, Massachusetts.

Officer:  "Just wait a minute - what's this?"

"That's my American license. I don't have a Saudi one yet, but -- "

"What do you mean, 'American license'? Show me where it says 'America.'"

Alas, it doesn't since it was issued by Massachusetts - a state - and not the federal government.  So the officer calls another officer over and they talk. The second officer comes over with the pleasant "salaamu aleikum" greeting declaring that he knows Massachusetts: "It's the best state!"

We chatted - he was friendly and extremely religious and demanded to know why I had not converted to Islam, since I knew Arabic and could presumably see, in the Koran, the perfect fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity. Surely I rejected the infamous sacrilege that God had a mother and a son?  ... I tried to pump him about his visit to Massachusetts.

"I never visited there - I know it from history. America is full of good people but bad things - sex and crime, and some people are so backward - they worship the devil and follow the tower" - he meant al-bourj, the zodiac - "but Massachusetts is the only place they know how to deal with witches - by hanging them!  Good night, my friend."  (pgs. 20-22)

Not sure why this struck me so funny. Must have been the matter-of-fact way the guy declared MA the "best state" because they hung witches there.  In the past. Not that that is funny at all ... moving on.


It involved in his opinion "a cultural rather than spiritual transformation. I never knew a Christian whose values changed radically after adopting Islam, but the outward changes - especially in name and wardrobe - were always striking."  [Insert examples of American converts who adopted "very specifically, the clothes and habits of the desert Arabs."]  "It was as if a Russian Jewish convert to Christianity in Oklahoma made it an article of faith to dress as a cowboy every day, down to the chaps, spurs, and lasso. ... It was a one-way street, of course, since apostatizing from Islam to any other faith was a capital crime."  (pg. 139-140)

Haha...I can understand adopting the head scarf if you thought God wanted you to cover your hair, but I have puzzled over the complete transformations and changed names. Hey, I guess if you don't like the name your parents gave you, it's a good excuse to find one you like better!  Too bad your selection is limited to Arabic ones, however.


He told of an Islamic University which "used a textbook, which debated, among other questions, whether or not Shiites have tails." (pg. 127)

"The ugliness of the Arab world's hostility toward its own Shiites was remarkable, and I felt that Saudi Arabia was abusing its prestige as guardian of Mecca and Medina by hinting that the Shia were 'deviants' and ridiculing their clergy. I had to take my stand, and I took it by being part of this friendly Shiite underground."  (pg. 128)

If I were a Shiite, I think I'd show them my tail so their mystery would be solved!  ;-)


"Surely the Saudi bigotry against other religions revealed a deep insecurity in the face of other cultures and faiths and was a sop to empty nationalism and phony clerics. Even the least observant Muslim in Saudi Arabia measured power and influence in religious terms. ... It was a subtle and informal way of marking territory. When the city of Rome decided, in 1984, to grant a building permit for a mosque near the Holy See, the reaction of the Riyadh press was anything but uplifting: jeering articles applauded this tanazul, relinquishing or surrender, on the part of Rome and the Vatican. They did not rule out that tolerance or political opportunism may have played a role, as they surely must have, but that was beside the point: Europe and all Christendom were gloatingly shown to be demoralized and weak for having caved to Islamic machismo. It was also portrayed as a crushing blow to 'world Zionism.'"

I wonder if this is similar to those folks in Tennessee who didn't want a mosque in their town. Were they also marking territory or desiring to not show weakness by surrendering?  Were they trying to deliver a "crushing blow" to "world Islamism"?  Hmmmm...

When Peter was talking to his friend about allowing a church for all the Christians in Riyadh (foreigners of course since all Saudis are Muslim by birth), he asked, "Wouldn't you respect them more if they went to church, if they had a church to go to?"

"'Having no churches prevents them from learning wrong things,' shrugged Hamdan. 'They should be grateful. It's their chance to learn something about Islam.'"  (pg. 172-173)

So have things changed much in these 25-30 years? I don't know. But it sure is interesting to read some impressions about this part of the world from the pre-9/11 days. Sometimes it's hard for me to recall what I thought of or knew about Arabs or Muslims before then.   Actually all these things described above sound nothing like the Arabs and Muslims I've had the pleasure of getting to know.  Maybe I should be more clear from time to time about that.  Samer asks me sometimes why I am reading books about his people (and finding faulty things such as I mentioned above) and I tell him if he were some Jewish Israeli guy who found me online, invited me to his country and became one of my best friends, I'd be reading books on Israel and Zionism and doing the same thing.  So I blame Samer. He started it!  ;)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Iraqi Refugees in Syria and Lebanon

I'm reading Eclipse of the Sunnis by Deborah Amos.  She is talking mostly about the Iraqi "surge" -- no, not the American soldiers surging into that country, but the "surge" of Iraqis fleeing their country into neighboring regions. This book tells the story of many people the author met during interviews with Iraqi refugees - millions who have been displaced mostly due to the American invasion and subsequent rising of a more sectarian government and society.  The first few chapters take place in Damascus and surrounding areas. One chapter deals with the women forced to work as prostitutes in order to provide for their children.

That's extremely heartbreaking enough, but then reading this just made me want to throw up my hands in disgust at the hypocrisy and unjustness!

"In another story, I had heard about an Iraqi woman in the sex trade whose clients were young Shiite men from the Mahdi militia who came to Syria in the summer for vacation. They paid her for sex, enjoyed her company, but threatened that if she ever came back to Baghdad they would cut her head off."  (pg. 84)

This is such an interesting book so far, and although it was published just last year, I am already wishing for an update due to how much Syria has changed in 2011.  I am left wondering about all those Iraqi refugees who fled there. Syria was one of the only countries who accepted Iraqis as the Jordanians quickly closed their border.  How have things changed for the refugees now that Syria is in an upheaval? Has it made more of them go back home? Have they joined either cause: those with Assad's regime or those who want more freedom?

In the section about Lebanon the author mentions Palestinians - particularly "young, third-generation refugees [who] had lost hope in liberating Palestine and found a more promising cause in the mujahedeen in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and then Iraq - all places they had gone to fight."  (pg. 100)

"The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq fanned the long-burning flame, giving the angry young men of Tripoli an outlet for venting their rage. When they came home from the anti-U.S. jihad in Iraq, the Lebanese fighters brought comrades with them and found refuge in Lebanon's Palestinian camps, which remained off-limits to the police and the army.  In this way, the unintended consequences of a generation of exiles that began in 1948 contributed to the ongoing destabilization of the region and the creation of a newly displaced people. It was the perfect example of the cost of doing nothing to solve an earlier refugee crisis: Ignore it for long enough and it will fan the next crisis and seed future ones."  (pg. 102)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jesus is the answer

This was just something I read in a magazine a few days ago that I liked as it was a timely reminder for me as I've struggled with my thinking on the human condition and the brokenness of life and such things.

"Dramatic testimony or not, Christian home or 'rough background,' life is broken for everyone. But Jesus saves. Regardless of the circumstances, the backgrounds, the histories, the bad deeds and even the good ones, the Gospel is the answer."

I remember "gospel" being defined as "good news."  And a friend telling us the good new is Jesus.  Not religion. Not Christianity.  Not all the stuff people tell you that you have to do to please God and make it to heaven.

It's just Jesus.

Jesus is the answer.  He offers good news for my broken life.

Source: "From Death to Life: Redeemed by the Gospel" pg. 17

Monday, November 14, 2011

NT Manuscript Variations and Inspiration

For those of you who have been to Sunday School classes or youth events where your questions were dismissed by your teachers because "you should just accept things by faith and not question God," I am glad to read that not everyone is this way. Thankfully many people have questioned and not simply accepted things blindly, but searched and studied.  I liked this little snippet.  Maybe because it's comforting to know scholarly people have studied and come out stronger in their trust of Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament.

In The Case for the Real Jesus author Lee Strobel recalls an interview he had with Bruce Metzger   "a scholar who's universally acknowledged as the greatest textual critic of his generation."  Bart Ehrman "even dedicates Misquoting Jesus to him, calling him 'Doctor-Father' and saying he 'taught me the field and continues to inspire me in my work.'"

Strobel was interviewing Metzger about the variations between New Testament manuscripts noting most of them "tend to be minor rather than substantive."

"Yes, yes, that's correct, " Metzger replied, adding: "The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church."

Then I recall asking him how his many decades of intensely studying the New Testament's text had affected his personal faith.  "Oh," he said, sounding happy to discuss the topic, "it has increased the basis of my personal faith to see the firmness with which these materials have come down to us, with a multiplicity of copies, some of which are very ancient."

"So," I started to say, "scholarship has not diluted your faith ____"

He jumped in before I could finish my sentence.  "On the contrary," he stressed, "it has built it. I've asked questions all my life, I've dug into the text, I've studied this thoroughly, and today I know with confidence that my trust in Jesus has been well placed."

He paused while his eyes surveyed my face. Then he added, for emphasis, "Very well placed."   (pg. 99)

I just wanted to share this for those wondering what the Bible being inspired meant.

In an interview with Dan Wallace ...

"Seeking a crisp summary, I said, 'Complete this sentence: when Christians say the Bible is inspired, they mean that...'"

"'...that it's both the Word of God and the words of men.  Lewis Sperry Chafer put it well: "Without violating the authors' personalities, they wrote with their own feelings, literary abilities, and concerns. But in the end, God could say, That's exactly what I wanted to have written."'"  (pg. 74)

Good definition or would you say it differently?


Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Lipstick Jihad"

Excerpts from Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni

Note: The author was born in 1976 to Iranian parents who came to America and ended up staying after the Islamic revolution. As an adult she lived in Tehran for several months as a journalist. She tried to remember the Iran she visited as a child and fit in with her people.  Here are a few observations that I noted from this book.

I wanted to pinpoint precisely what it was that gave me away as a foreigner. After watching me for several weeks as we rode in taxis and shopped and had coffee, Celine concluded that it was nothing so obvious. She leaned forward in her chair, as if to make a serious pronouncement. One, you laugh whenever you want.  And two, you smile too much. This is very American of you. It doesn't really occur to you, to alter yourself in public. So I should smile less? I asked. I should be less nice?  No, she replied, you need to be more selective about who you're nice to.
  (pg. 69)

I just found that funny because I think I would be guilty of the same if I were in one of those societies where it's odd to smile at any ol' person walking down the street.

The major social aim of the revolution had been to impose Islamic faith on Iranian society.  But the catalog of restrictions - on dress, behavior, speech - meant to instill a solemn decency instead inflamed people's carnal instincts. Made neurotic by the innate oppressiveness of restriction, Iranians were preoccupied with sex in the manner of dieters constantly thinking about food. The subject meant to be unmentionable - to which end women were forced to wear veils, sit in the back of the bus, and order hamburgers from the special "women's line" at fast food joints - had somehow become the most mentioned of all.  The constant exposure to covered flesh - whether it was covered hideously, artfully, or plainly - brought to mind, well, flesh.
  (pg. 71)

Makes sense really.  And I read stuff like this often on Muslim blogs about how preoccupied the people are with sex!  To me, covering women doesn't really make the men stop fantasizing about what's hidden under the veil.

Her thoughts on temporary marriages, the Shiite practice of sigheh -- "It is a form of prostitution, which enables a patriarchal culture to cement the imbalanced gender relations in the guise of empowering women with a temporary and flimsy legal status that rarely works to their benefit."  (pg. 74)

It amuses me somewhat when people try to defend this as some gift from God.

It was only over time, after repeated exposure to womanizing clerics, clerics who stole from the state and built financial empires, who ordered assassinations like gangsters, who gave Friday sermons attacking poodles, that I came to understand the virulence of my father and my uncle's hate for the Iranian clergy. Perhaps their flaws were no greater than those of ordinary mortals, but ordinary mortals did not claim divine right to rule, ineptly, over seventy million people.
(pg. 101)

Yessssss!  And that is the problem! You are corrupt like the rest of us, yet you believe God allows you to tell us what to do!  And poodles are so awful just because some Westerners own them?  Get outta here!

Thoughts on the veil -- "It was the symbol of how everything had gone horribly wrong. How in the early days of the revolution, secular women wore the veil as a protest symbol against the West and its client state policies, and then had it imposed on them by the fundamentalist mullahs who hijacked the revolution and instituted religious law. My generation, Iranians who learned about 1979 at kitchen tables in the United States, absorbed this version of history as truth.  Though most women in modern-day Iran might not consider the veil their highest grievance, they knew it symbolized the system's disregard for women's legal status in general. Mandatory veiling crushed women's ability to express themselves, therefore denying them a basic human right."  (pg. 170)

Nanny governments and mandatory veiling stinks! What happened to it being between a woman and God?

On how some women from conservative families were more free after the Shah's removal from power -- "Under the Shah's regime, traditional parents like hers would never have let their daughters stray out into society. They preferred to keep them uneducated and housebound rather than exposing them to corrupt, Westernized Iranians who drank, smoke, wore miniskirts, and slept around. The revolution erased all those sins from the surface of society (tucking them under wraps, along with women).  In the process, it made possible for young women like Fatimeh to venture out of the home sphere. They were given the opportunity to do something with their lives besides washing dishes and birthing."  (pg. 181)

This reminded me of the arguments of those who oppose the burqa bans in some European countries. They claim women will just have to stay home since they won't be allowed to go out in public with their faces showing.  In that sense France, in their opinions, actually oppressed Muslim women (more).

I really enjoyed this book because I was able to learn some about the Iranian revolution and life in Tehran from an Iranian woman.  I do realize she is a secular Muslim* woman who grew up in California and that colors her views of some things in Iran that others may have no problem with.

*Some would probably not even consider her Muslim, but I believe she culturally considers herself this way.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Climbing Trees and Breaking Things

Remember how I've talked about noticing patterns in the past? (Like this post where I talked about tuna.)   Well, last night I posted a few pictures from Halloween on Facebook.  I had one where Michael took a picture of me pretending to climb a tree. I'd gotten to his house early so we took a few pictures while waiting for it to get dusky enough for trick or treating.  (It's this picture for those who are able to see my Facebook photos.)  Anyway, one of my doctor friends joked that it was cute, but he'd advise against it so I joked that yeah I might break my arm and have to visit a doctor.

No biggie.

A few hours later I was mowing the yard and thinking of climbing trees and wondering if kids even did that any more. I remember climbing trees at my great grandmother's house. My cousins and I had fun hiding out up there.

No biggie.

But then a couple hours later I was talking to my mom and she was telling me about one of her fifth grade students who was absent today. Turns out the kid was *cue spooky music* climbing a tree before trick or treating!


And broke his arm!


I just thought that was weird enough to share.

In other news, Lipstick Jihad was a really good book and I enjoyed learning about the author's experiences in Iran.  I never knew Iranians were so much like Americans in many ways.

Monday, October 31, 2011

October Books

It's that time again!  I read more books this month than I thought I would. It helped that many of these were rather short and/or easy reads.  Some books just take way more thinking than others. Most of these were not that type so I read quite a bit.  Happy Halloween to those who enjoy this day!

The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart -- A book about a Scottish man's journey by foot through central Afghanistan and the people he meets along the way. I was impressed by some villages' hospitality, but mostly unimpressed by how many treated a stranger among them and how they treated dogs and donkeys!  Rather neat story and way to "see" some remote parts of Afghanistan just after the Taliban fell.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson  -- see previous posts

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas -- "A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America" is a cute story I happened to stumbled upon in the biography section of my local library.  Firoozeh was 7 years old when her family moved to California for two years. This was before the Iranian Revolution and the family was there because of her dad's work with a big oil company.  She told how nice the Americans were and her first impressions of their language, foods and services. I laughed out loud when she and her mom went to the store looking for "elbow grease" to help get out stubborn stains!  The family went back to Iran for a while, but came back to the US permanently after the revolution.  While Firoozeh mentions Islam, Muhammad and being Muslim, she is quick to point out her family's secular views and speaks of her father's love of ham (which he was able to purchase and eat in Iran since they lived in a section developed by the British) and her own marriage to a cultural Roman Catholic French guy whom she met in the US. (Oddly, his mom never accepted their marriage as of the writing.)  I loved her talk of our lack of using those guttural sounds, our lack of a billion names for relatives. Cousins, aunts, uncles covers a lot of people in English whereas in Iran they are each broken down specifically!  Really cute book. I loved seeing America through her family's eyes!

The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays -- the authors (a married couple) discuss movie stars taking new names as well as regular people names, place names and maiden names. Some chapters are of more interest to me than others, but overall a pretty good book even though it was published way back in 1997.  A few tidbits:

"If first names whisper, surnames shout,and they often give misleading messages. 'In daily life,' Mary Waters, a sociologist, reported, 'Americans routinely use surnames to guess one another's ethnic origins,' but the conclusions they reach, based on folk knowledge of what is a typical Irish, Italian, or Dutch name, deal only with the father's ethnicity, ignore the mother's, and disregard mixed marriages, mixed ancestries, and earlier name changes. Even so, beginning with the first tidal waves of immigration, a surname could cut you off from employment and social acceptance as effectively as a criminal record.  If it was O'Reilly or Epstein or Bertucci, your destiny was shaped in the cradle.  Some people with undesirable names went the pragmatic route and changed them.  Others, who couldn't tolerate the psychic wrench of a name change, did not and often paid for their refusal in reduced earning power and career advancement, although they may have slept better at night than the name changers."   (pg. 56)

"Smith is the ultimate catchall for linguistic naturalization: it takes in Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz, Smed, Szmyt, Schmieder, Smidnovic, Seppanen, Fevre, Kalvaitis, Kovars, Haddad, McGowan, and other variants that in their original language mean someone who works with metal." (pg. 52)

Granted this book is old, but when it was published in 1997 it said this about Germany's naming laws: "'the gender of the child must be recognizable from the first name.' Junior, Jr., and Jun. are verboten, as are Hemingway, Jesus, and Woodstock as first names..."  Under Hitler there "was a list of first names to be used exclusively for Jewish newborns" and those adults who were not readily identifiable by their last names as Jews had to take "Israel or Sarah as a middle name."  (pg. 113)

"When a woman gives up her name at marriage, she's saying: 'While I'm willing to relinquish a piece of my identity for the sake of this union, I do not ask the same of you.'"  (pg. 146)

Fried Eggs With Chopsticks by Polly Evans - An English woman tells of her travels by sleeper trains, buses, bicycles, taxis through parts of China. This book was written in a much more humorous way than some other travel books I've read. Almost like a comedy mixed with travel through China.

Thura's Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq
by Thura Al-Windawi (almost 20 years old) tells of the few days before the war, Thura's family during the initial days of war and such things.  Interestingly, things got worse for women as religious people started making the women cover their hair and not celebrate Muhammad's birthday at the mosque like she had all her years before. Also pornography became much more commonplace. It could have just been the American soldiers, but Thura "scolded" the Muslim-majority Iraqi people for this.

Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine by Scott Korb -- a library book that discussed war, homes, religion, money, foods, bathing, respect and death in year one.  Pretty interesting! You can read a short interview about these topics here if you want.

Faith Under Fire by Roger Benimoff is "an army chaplain's memoir" mostly about his second deployment to Iraq and the struggle he had with PTSD and adjusting to normal family life upon his return.  He questioned how he could serve a God who would not step in to stop all the terrible things and suffering in life. This book made me so sad about the awfulness of war...all those killed and living with shattered bodies and minds. 

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley -- I really enjoyed this book; see previous posts for more on it

Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo by Zlata Filipović -- life just before and during the war as told by 11 and 12 year old Zlata; it ends with the shelling continuing; I got to thinking that Zlata is now 30 years old and wonderedhow she is now. Oh, I found this about her on Wikipedia.

The Bookseller Of Kabul by Asne Seierstad -- a great book which tells about life in a fairly well-off family; each chapter follows various family members' roles in society and in their households. Makes me extremely appreciative for not being part of that life.

Muhammad by Deepak Chopra -- a fictionalized biography of sorts; each chapter is told by a contemporary of Muhammad - friends, families, enemies; I got the book recommendation from Wafa's reading blog - here is her review

Off The Map: Bicycling Through Siberia by Mark Jenkins -- granted this book is a bit old; the journey took place in 1989, but it was fun reading of that time in Russian history. I enjoyed Mark's telling of his trip with a couple other Americans and four Russians - complete strangers prior to this months-long journey - and their interactions with each other and people in Siberian villages. It was sobering to hear one lady admit that "they were pets" to the country's leaders.  Interesting book!

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah -- "The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" -- I found this at the local library. What a sad book in so many ways.  Adeline's mother died two weeks after her birth so she was considered unlucky. Her stepmother was cruel and her father had no backbone to stand up to her.  Adeline's siblings were troubling too. I admire Adeline for her hard work in getting good grades and determination to study abroad and finally settle in California as a doctor. This book was quite interesting as it told some history of Shanghai and Hong Kong as it pertained to the author's life.  Made me wonder how people could sorely mistreat family like this. 

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Human Condition

Journal entry excerpt from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.  Last ones, I promise!  I returned the book a few days ago.  :-)

I read this and it just struck a chord. Maybe it's because not many days before this, I had been thinking of the "human condition" while sitting on my porch reading about struggles in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world. (Those travel books can really get to you when you start seeing "the enemy" as human beings!)  It was so weird seeing those exact words written in this journal entry in this particular book. I can relate much to the author's sentiments here and in the final entry on this post. Only instead of Kosovo (Kosova to Albanians; the spelling is a political statement and both are used in the book), my heart was left in Syria. I always wanted to go back, but now it seems nearly impossible.


... I remember a letter my brother, David, wrote me not long ago - a long thoughtful letter about the futility of most human efforts to improve things. Humanity evolves at its own speed, he says, and we are a long way away from being anywhere close to goodness, kindness, peace. He worries, I think, that with all the renewed violence in the area, I am discouraged, unhappy with our decision to come here. Maybe, he thinks, I have become cynical. After all, things look less stable now than they did when we arrived eight months ago.

It is true that after seeing what I have seen, learning what I have learned, I am less hopeful than ever about our human condition.  I doubt we can ever straighten ourselves out. World peace is only a dream. The most we can do, I fear, is to prevent violence in some places, put a lid on it in others, help each other when we can.

But in the place of hope I now feel ... something else.  I look around me and see that most of us share a certain sweetness.  Most of us are trying to live decent lives, doing what we can for our families and children, trying to find some meaning, to piece together the puzzle. But we keep blundering, stumbling, falling into fits of rage and fear, hatred and self-destruction. Our stories are often sad, tragic, maddening.  And I am not hopeful that things will get much better. I don't see progress, but I don't feel cynicism. I feel only an immense tenderness for all of us.

Tonight, as I have often done during my stay in Kosovo, I turn to a copy of
The Sun, the magazine published by my friend, Sy. In an interview, James Hillman advises us to "pick one place where your heart can connect to the world's problems." 

For me, that place has been Kosovo. I am so very lucky to have found it.
  (pg. 210)

Do you think Ms. Huntley's outlook on humanity or the world is too pessimistic, too optimistic or about right?  Do you think the world is getting better, worse or staying the same?  In what areas do you see progress? In what areas do you find cause for concern?

What do you think of the "immense tenderness" she feels for people? Do you also feel this way or do you tend towards cynicism or something else entirely?

What do you think about her observations of people sharing a "certain sweetness" and just trying to provide for their families and figure out this puzzle of life?


...So, we will return this spring. ... When I e-mailed them of the possibility of returning for a visit, Leutrim and Leonard wrote back immediately volunteering to try to round everyone up for a class reunion at the Cambridge School.  And Genti wrote: "We wonder why anyone would come back to Kosova. We think you must love us very much
."  (pg. 225)

Thoughts? Where has your heart connected to the world's problems? Or maybe it's not necessarily a particular place, but a cause or a group of people scattered throughout the world or in your own country.

Anything you want to share?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Darkness of My Heart

Journal entry excerpt from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.

"Teacher" was talking to her Kosovar students about the war and about how not all Serbs are bad and it's not good to generalize the whole population as being one way...right?


...Is their bitterness, their fear so great that they could do to Serbs what Serbs did to them?  Could soft-spoken Veton burn a Serb village because his own was burned by Serbs? Would sweet, wide-eyed Enver, who loves basketball and never misses a class, stand by and watch while atrocities were committed?  Could any of these bright, kindhearted young people kill Serbs because they are Serbs?

And if I were in their shoes, what would I be capable of? Have I come to grips with the darkness in my own heart?

Tonight I read the words of Francois Bizot, who was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge for three months in 1971 and who writes in Le Portail: "Every war needs killers and they can always be found. We always put ourselves in the skin of the victims and not of their killers - we never put ourselves in the skin of a Nazi or Khmer Rouge.  Yet between them and us there is very little difference, no more than between the victim and us."

And the same from Matthew Spender: "In extreme situations only chance divides the role of the torturer from that of his victims."

Are they right? Given the right circumstances, we are all, even the best of us, capable of anything?  There are no easy answers, in Kosovo or anywhere else.
(pg. 188)

I was talking to a friend in Damascus the other day and he was saying how things have changed the last two months. The uprisings that began in Syria back in March have continued yet Friend has noticed a shift. He said people are openly talking of revenge, of siding with the devil if it means toppling the regime. His exact words to me were:

ordinary people are now talking of revenge and very very dark thoughts
  i fear that we will be torn apart there is so much hate now   i never imagined that we would reach this level 
 He said he'd even lost friends because of differing of opinions, there was much sectarian division and he did not like the way things were headed.

Listening to Friend talk and reading this excerpt from Ms. Huntley's journal makes me think the man she quoted is right when he says we often identify with the victims without perhaps realizing we are capable of evil things if circumstances go another way. Maybe the Nazis didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. They were cleansing the world of filth in order to ensure the strongest of the species survived, right?  And for the Syrian regime: why not stop those traitors who are bent on destroying the country?  Even religions OK killing treasonous people, don't they?

It's actually pretty easy to rationalize our favorite evil things. Thankfully most of us won't go the route of rounding up people for gas chambers, or mutilating young boys for the sake of power and control of a country. But...

What do you think of the quotes in this journal entry?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Journal Entries

Journal entry excerpts from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley. I am really enjoying this book!


I am in love with my students. They are bright, fun, curious, receptive. Today they practice speaking, repeating each sentence after me in perfect imitation, and I realize with chagrin that these Kosovo Albanian students are being taught to speak English not only with an American accent, but with a southern accent!  It seems that, even after twenty-one years in California, my southern drawl is still with me - and now, with my students!
  (pg. 51)

Haha!  I can totally see this happening if I were teaching ESL!  Samer would consider it great, I think. He actually wishes sometimes that I had a heavier southern accent if you can imagine! 


...And here is the key distinction, I've found, between Kosovar students and American students: American students study in order to secure lucrative jobs and a sense of individual achievement. Kosovo Albanians study so they can provide for their families - their parents, siblings, and grandparents, as well as any future family they will have. Education is a family goal, not an individual goal.
  (pg. 115)

A few entries later the author talks about how shocked her students are when told that American teens often study far from their families and get jobs hundreds of miles away. Families are very important to Albanians and they cannot imagine this.  When "Teacher" reminds them that many of their relatives are in Western Europe working, they counter that they do this to send money back home, but their main goal is to return to be near their parents and siblings.


At the bottom of Dragodan at an intersection close to the railway tracks, there's a sign that proudly proclaims: "This Corner Cleaned Up by UNMIK."  The signpost itself is invisible because of the mountains of rubbish piled around it. The trash of kitchens, offices, and shops surrounds the sign and spills over into the street.

There's a basic cultural misunderstanding on this corner.  UNMIK, wishing to set an example for the community, cleaned up the site and erected the sign to show what could be done. The community took the sign to mean that UNMIK would clean up whatever garbage they dumped there.  Thus, the messiest corner in the city.
(pg. 171)

This just struck me funny. Cultural misunderstandings often are (and sometimes not, of course!)  Oh, the people just pile trash outside. Apparently there are mounds of it to wade through to go anywhere.


As Leonard and I walk from the Monaco Café to the school today, I ask him: "Leonard, how is it that people here can always tell I am an American? Even before I open my mouth, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people on the street can see that I am from the U.S."  I've been puzzled about this for a long while.

"That is easy, Teacher," he says. "You are not afraid."

I don't understand.

"Teacher" - he eyes me carefully, not wanting to insult me - "you think that because you like everyone, everyone will like you. You show everyone a friendly face, a face that trusts. You don't think anyone would hurt you. Everyone knows that is how Americans are." 

"Here in Kosova," he continues, "we have learned to be afraid.  Americans have not learned this lesson."
  (pg. 182)

I remember when Samer and I were early in our friendship and I made a short video on my camera. Initially he told me if I came to Syria, I would blend right in with the locals because not all Syrians have dark hair and eyes and olive skin. (Since that area has had so many conquerors that have left their marks, the people can vary in skin, eye and hair color.)  So he told me until I open my mouth and reveal my English-speaking talk, they would probably think I was local. 

But then he saw a video where I was introducing myself to a few of his college friends and he changed his mind completely.  He said there was something about me - my body language (although the video was mostly a head-and-shoulders shot), my facial expression, my voice, something - that said "you are not Syrian!"  He said later that my eyes sparkled. And Syrian eyes did not so much.


His friend "Jake" also thought I could pass for Syrian. He'd always seen the still-shot of me that I had on Skype or Facebook or somewhere!  But when he came with Samer to pick me up from the airport, he was amazed that I did not look Syrian at all and was very American-looking (whatever that means!)

What are your thoughts or impressions of any of this?  This book is great, by the way. Makes me want to learn more about that area of the world and the people and conflicts. I have been sorely ignorant.