Category Archives: War
Do people write to exorcise their inner demons? Does fictionalizing it help them come to terms with reality? Maybe so, just as journaling is supposed to do.
In these days of very short attention span, I am immensely grateful for such books that come my way, that makes me forget the world around. That they may take me to another world of pain and loss is another matter altogether.
Spanning four generations starting in Ein Hod, a beautiful village in Palestine, the story follows the family of Amal, the protagonist, to the refugee camp in Jenin, to Jerusalem, Lebanon and the United States. A family that has lived on the same property for generations, growing olives is suddenly displaced with the formation of Israel. What they thought was temporary slowly turns permanent. The proud patriarch, whose very soul is deeply interconnected with his land, slowly loses himself. His bright son and his spirited gypsy of a wife turns shadows of themselves and turns inward, trying to fight their inner demons. As for their kids, one of the twin sons gets lost as they flee and ends up in an Israeli home and grows up as one, eventually and inevitably fighting against his own brother. Amal, their daughter is born in the camp and grows up listening to the stories of their long lost glory.
The author takes you through Amal’s life, tells us how her mornings with her father shapes her for life, how everything she loved comes crumbling around her, how you could be hounded for life for what your loved ones could have done, how she finds an ephemeral love and how beautiful souls help her physically escape the war and rife.
This could be the story of families anywhere in war torn areas. People displaced overnight, strangers taking over what was yours for generations, what you had taken for granted. You don’t lose hope at first, dream of returning home. Some resign themselves to their fate. Others rebel and try to wreak revenge. What is right and what is wrong, how can you judge anyone?
As always, it’s never the governments that saves some of them. Individuals and organizations fight for them and some are rescued. What exactly are they rescued from is another question altogether. The scars are passed on from generation to generation. It was after reading Yiyun Li’s ‘Where Reasons End’ that I started wondering whether we pass on our emotional scars to our offspring as part of our DNA. So much of our instincts are inherited, aren’t they? We get scared of expressing our emotions, fearing our loved ones might get too dependent on us and what if we turn incapable of providing solace one day? To protect them we retreat, we withhold. In turn pass on the same insecurities and fears to the next generation.
It’s a story of betrayals, of being let down, letting others and even our loved ones down. How spirits are broken, trodden upon. Also of hope. That in spite of all the wrongdoings, there are beacons of light everywhere and they are the ones that keeps hope alive. It’s also a story of love, between parents and children, siblings. More important, it’s a story of friendships that cross the borders of class and religion.
Apparently someone had accused the author of being one sided. How would you not be, when the story is so personal. Abulhawa’s parents are from Jerusalem, her father was expelled during the 1967 war, her mother was in Germany at that time and could never go back. When you lose everything that you once had and stood for, how is it even possible to think otherwise?
I could draw a lot of parallels with Kashmir. A generation that had a past they were proud of, and their offspring that has not known anything better or different. How fights turn personal and violent when it hits places and people close to your heart. How privileged we are, who judge them from afar, exhorting them to be happy with what they’ve been left with. What do we really know of their pain?
There is a slightly old movie that I watched recently, ‘I Am.’ Four stories, one of which is from Kashmir. Two childhood friends, one a Pandit girl and the other a Muslim. Juhi Chawla’s character plays the Pandit girl. She’s back in Kashmir to sell her ancestral home off. Her friend, played by Manisha Koirala is eagerly trying to connect with her. For Juhi’s character, the pain is too raw, she feels the others have had a better deal. All the while scenes of destruction and a life controlled by police and paramilitary forces are shown. The boy in the family was a one time militant but had surrendered years ago. The family still continues to be harassed. In the last scene, Koirala who’s had enough of Juhi’s barbs asks her, “do you think you would have been happy here if we were the ones who were forced to leave?”
One of the most poignant parts in the book is where the family goes back to their ancestral home that is now converted into an artist’s retreat. The current owners shut the door on them saying they’ve seen too many of their kind. They want to be left in peace.
Peace, it means so many different things, depending on who you are and where you are from, isn’t it?
Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.
Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.
The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.
She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.
“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”
Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.
“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”
Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.
It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.
“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”
‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.
All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.
These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.
“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”
It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.
The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.
The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.
That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.
The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.
If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.
(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)
Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.
“Who are you?”
“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”
So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.
Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”
As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,
“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “
I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation, how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.
A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.
Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.
Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.
One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.
Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.
The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it
Verdict : Go grab it and read!
It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.
These days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.
Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.
‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me
“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”
The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.
Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san, a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.
There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.
At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.
If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.
The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,
“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”
It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,
“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”
In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.
Verdict – I was ready to judge it a little above a customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it if you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what this life is all about.
I had brought back a long list of books to read from our vacation at Capella, Goa. Ayesha, our lovely hostess is mad about books and I had the time of my life combing through her bookshelves, finding new authors and discovering some titles that I had never heard of, from my favorite authors. One author that was present in almost all her shelves was Isabel Allende and during our chat one evening, she recommended ‘The House of the Spirits’ as a must read. I finally got hold of a copy from the library last week.
A few pages in, the wonder started creeping in. What is it about Latin America and its authors that enchants us so much, it is as if the word magical realism was invented by them. Maybe it is indeed.
The del Valle women has something different about them. Nivea , the mother comes from a madcap family, while her daughters have their own peculiarities. Rosa, the eldest, is so beautiful and perfect, men are even scared of talking to her. Clara, the clairvoyant and the youngest in the family is the true heroine of the story. The spirits that are around her all the time, helps her predict the future of her loved ones, not that it is sufficient to help them when it is needed. Rosa is betrothed to Esteban Trueba, whose father squandered the family wealth and who is now working day and night in the mines so that he can provide his love Rosa, a life that is truly worth her. However, Rosa’s untimely and accidental death, sends him to his family estate that is in ruins. And this is where I feel the real story begins.
Within a year, Esteban has not only revived his estate, but also established himself as a true lord and master of the people who work for him. What we see next is the rise of the classic feudal land lord, ruling with an iron fist, squeezing out the last bit from the land and his tenants, his eyes and arms never missing a young girl and leaving behind him a spew of progeny that he choses to first ignore and then forget. In the background is his dying mother and sister Ferula with whom he has a volatile relationship. He goes onto marry Clara who, even with her spirit wandering in another world, ensnares him so much that he doesn’t feel like even looking at another woman.
In the true passionate manner that we attribute to people from that continent, Blanca, Esteban and Clara’s daughter, befriends their plebian manager’s son, who turns out to be a revolutionary and people’s musician. Esteban’s twin sons are as different as chalk and cheese – Jaime, the altruistic and empathetic one and Nicolas , whose only interest is in making money without any effort. The author takes us through the turbulent lives of these characters , shuttling between Esteban’s hacienda, Tres Marias in the village and the ‘big house in the corner’ in the city, both of which are ruled by Clara and her spirits.
The narration is from the eyes of Esteban and his granddaughter Alba, Blanca’s daughter. The story is a true epic, it is as much about the tale of a country as it is about four generations of women, who influence and support each other, whether dead or alive. As the spirits wander around the houses, the country goes through the natural cycle of the rich land owners and the submissive , dirt poor workers who depend on their masters for their existence. The second generation turns against their fathers in both classes, one against the injustices and the other fighting for justice. The third generation tries to settle scores. The government moves from the hands of the rich and elite, to the socialists who comes into power with the intangible support of communists. In their blind scramble to get power back by hook or by brook, the rich hands over the country in a platter to a set of dictators.
There are a lot many other characters, each having their own place and space in the story. The multitude does not confuse you but adds to the intrigue and strength of the story. The narrative style is so vivid, you feel as though you are actually living in that era, as a part of the Trueba family in a house that is enchanting and intimidating at the same time. The scope of the story is so vast, however hard I try, it is impossible to do justice and summarize it in a brief review.
Though set in Chile, a country that is far off,the similarities are many. The rich land lords, the sons and daughters who rebel against the iron fists, revolution that is spread through songs, the illicit and torrid affairs between the haves and have nots, the very settings itself, reminded me of Kerala a few decades ago. Even the life cycle of Esteban, is so similar to the many patriarchs that we see even today in some of the hamlets. Like lions in their heydays, terrorizing whole villages, they slowly turn into indulgent and placid grandfathers as they grow old. The metamorphosis of land and man are intertwined with each other, one cannot exist without the other.
Verdict – Must read, specially if you are one who loves passion, intrigue, revenge, affairs and love coupled with the history of a nation.
Trivia – This is Isabel Allende’s debut novel. Rejected by several Spanish publishers , this was finally published in Barcelona in 1982.
The title is what caught my attention, but the content is hardly about Jane Austen or for that matter even about books. What unfolds is the harsh reality of a life under siege, the helplessness and frustration of living under occupation and a stigma that has been imposed on ordinary people for no fault of their own.
Bee, a London mother of three and a producer for BBC World Service Radio, sends an email to May, an English lecturer in American occupied Baghdad, for an interview. What follows is how amazing relationship grows, nurtured through mails and an occasional phone call over a period of three years. While Bee’s letters are more often about her life , husband, kids, her extended family and her work, May’s correspondence opens up a world of hopelessness, frustration , sadness , disappointment and anger at a life that has been thrust on her.
As they correspond with each other, slowly a plan emerges to get May and her husband Ali out of Baghdad and the two become more than just friends. For Bee, it becomes almost a mission, it is as if her own sister is caught in a country from where escape seems almost impossible. The real eye opener is the reality of a normal citizen’s life in what was once a peaceful country. May writes about how one day they woke up suddenly to find their country at war with Iran, a war that continued for eight years. They heaved a sigh of relief as it ended only to find themselves at war again soon, this time with Kuwait. What happened to Iraq after that is known to all, but what many of us may not have realized is how the lives of common people changed. The irony is in the fact that the West raised an embargo on Saddam Hussein to teach him a lesson and his life was the least affected by it.
In spite of being an academic who has spent her initial years in the UK, the stigma of being from Saddam’s country follows May and she shares the depth of helplessness and anger as she writes,
“To be honest, Bee, I’d rather be killed in Baghdad than become a beggar on the doorsteps of other countries. Especially when these countries are the ones who have shattered our lives, exploited our national wealth and put us through all this misery.”
Bee is unwilling to give up and at the same time, exhorts May not too raise her hopes too much. At times, she comes across as a little harsh, but then you realize she is right in doing so, May has to be prepared for the realities and the tough path ahead before she can , if at all emigrate to the UK.
Another aspect that comes out in May’s letters is her relationship with her second husband Ali. But for him, May would have been able to get out of the country relatively easier. But she is sure that Ali’s love is something that she would not be willing to give up , even for the unthinkable freedom she could have out of her home country.
The part where May writes about her students and what she has to teach about is as ironical as the rest of her life. She is met with blank faces as she lectures about human rights and democracy and it takes her some time to understand the reason.
“I realized that it was impossible for these oppressed young females to comprehend that there are freedoms granted to humanity in general. It was like describing colors to the color-blind, I thought to myself.”
May has to face several unforeseen and totally unexpected setbacks before she and Ali can make it to UK, several times she reaches a point of complete breakdown and disappointment. One of her notes to Bee at this stage would be an echo of any ordinary citizen in a ravaged country like Iraq,
“Do you remember, Bee, when in my ‘Apology to Hemingway’ I said that they keep defeating you until you’ll gladly want to destroy yourself? We have never ceased to struggle. It is as if we are living under constant punishment, lasting from the cradle to the grave. Is such a life really worth living? Where are our rights as individuals? Why do other countries assume that we have no feelings?”
The book reiterates some of the questions that even you might have had, “Who or what gives the right to certain countries to decide what is good for others? What makes them think that they are the only ones who know what is right for the world? ”
Verdict : A must read, makes you thankful for even the little things in life that you so take for granted.
That William Dalrymple is a travel writer par excellence is a well known fact. Even while being accused of being biased in his opinions, his ability to churn out brilliant stories were never disputed. This book is no different , a story which has its roots drawn from the writings of a sixth century Byzantine monk, John Moschos, it takes us through the paths that Moschos traversed in the sixth century and Dalrymple followed some 1500 years later.
In his book, ‘The Spiritual Meadow,’ John Moschos talks about the monasteries and the teachings and life styles of the monks and pilgrims that he and his pupil Sophronius met in the course of their journey through the heart of the Byzantine empire at its prime. Centuries later, Dalrymple decides to recreate the journey and retrace their steps in an attempt to chronicle a ‘dying civilization.’
Starting from a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, in June 1994, Dalrymple takes us through the war and man torn lands of Istanbul, Antioch, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the controversial West Bank, Jerusalem, Nazareth and finally ends a little less than a week before Christmas, in the desert of Kharga, in Egypt, once considered the Siberia of the Byzantine Empire. As he travels across arid deserts and deserted monasteries, the recurring theme is that of a sometimes abandoned , most times destroyed remnants of a once powerful empire. Churches in ruins that even now would surpass the most well known and well preserved Basilicas, forgotten caves and desolate structures that are dispersed throughout the Middle East with a few old world inhabitants who refuse to leave, the pictures that he presents are vivid and depressing at the same time.
A few of the themes that recur throughout the book is how Christianity was essentially an Eastern religion, how similar it is to Islam and how cultures across are so different yet remain similar. It is interesting to note how each change in culture mostly starts peacefully, then slowly the seeds of intolerance are sown to weed out what is not their own, finally culminating in a near total destruction of the one that was there originally. A matter of history repeating itself, or as a friend of mine put it, history echoing itself across regions and religions. Even in between all the strife and war, you can see Muslims coming to pray in obscure monasteries , bringing the weirdest of offerings and Orthodox priests assessing in these offerings in a very matter of fact way.
It is heart wrenching to read about people who are asked to leave their house overnight leaving behind belongings of their lifetime, coming back to find strangers closing these very same doors on their faces and who still continue to live in the never ending hope of that ‘some day’.
One would expect Dalrymple to be biased especially since the theme is based on Christianity and its decline. He admits,
“When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.”
Be it fundamentalism , questions of ethnicity or issues of compromising to the diktats of majority, one fact is indisputable – it is the alarming decrease in the population of a minority that was once a majority. Almost everywhere that he visited, the educated young had already or were in the process of emigrating to the West or Australia.
You can glimpse the author’s innate sense of humor in places like Beirut where,
“Armageddon I expected, Armani I did not”
His conversations with the Orthodox priest Fr.Theophanes of the Monastery of Mar Saba on the Israeli occupied West Bank is particularly hilarious. Contrary to what my Sunday school nuns taught me, this priest says all Catholics will end up in hell along with Freemasons.
“I always thought Freemasons just held coffee mornings and whist drives and that sort of thing.”
“Wheest drives?” said Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it were some sort of Satanic ritual. “Probably this wheest drive also. But their main activity is to worship the Devil. There are many steps,” he said knowingly. “But the last,the final step, is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him. After this he makes you Pope or sometimes the President of the United States.”
“President of the United States….?”
“Certainly. This has been proved. All the Presidents of the United States have been Freemasons. Except Kennedy. And you know what happened to him….”
He had seen Christian population looking happy only in Syria and had warned that this may change “as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.” Ten years down the lane, we are getting glimpses of what is happening in Syria. It would be interesting to know what happened to the scores of other not so happy and clearly unhappy people that he wrote about.
The book has now left me with an imminent urge to visit that mysterious place that has been beckoning for sometime…Istanbul and its Hagia Sophia
Verdict : Not an easy read, you need to take it slowly. But definitely worth it if you love reading about long forgotten lands, mysterious monks, disappearing cultures, enigmatic monasteries rising out of vast deserts, in voices that are sad, happy, nostalgic, angry, resigned, hopeful…in short, if you love reading about history, religion and travel.