I have some absolutely wonderful books to review for you today.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book, and I love Joanna Brooks. I related to so much of what she said, from the evident nostalgia with which she recounted her childhood experience of growing up in the warm, safe certainty of the Mormon faith to the anguish of finding a “knot of contradictions” at the heart of her faith.
My struggles and doubts and questions about my faith have been somewhat different from hers, but my feelings are very similar, as is my tightrope walk to find a way to belong to the faith I love while dealing honestly with its sometimes troubling past (and present).
Joanna asks the hard questions, but she does it with grace and compassion. I cried through several parts of her book, because the things that kept her awake at night are similar to the things that keep me awake. I have said many of the same anguished prayers she describes. I love her for saying what so many of us are thinking, for working to build bridges of understanding between Mormons and non-Mormons, orthodox and not-so-orthodox believers, and for reassuring me that there is a place at the table for me.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to say I was pretty sad to come to the end of the Palliser Chronicles, although this was in nowise my favorite of series. I mean really! What’s with [SPOILER]killing off Lady Glencora[SPOILER] in the first chapter?
The most interesting part of the novel, for me, was watching the evolution of 19th century society. It slowly dawns on the Duke that he is living in a different world from the one he inhabited as a young man. Where his beloved wife was coerced into marrying him by interfering relatives, his own children will have their way in marriage, whether that means his daughter marrying a penniless MP, or even worse, his son and heir marrying a (gasp!) gregarious American.
Plenty of the typical Trollope hilarity, with ridiculous English noblemen and excruciating social situations. I will dearly miss the world of the Pallisers.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been going through the Development Economics course at Marginal Revolution University, and the professors recommend Diamond’s book. I really enjoyed reading it, not least because Jared Diamond is the sort of Renaissance man it is difficult to find in Academia nowadays. His book takes a broad-brush approach to history and attempts to answer some very fundamental questions about the development of civilizations and their interaction with one another.
I think anyone who has spent time in a developing country has asked themselves the question of why some peoples are on top and others are on the bottom. Diamond is passionate most of all about disproving the idea that any ethnic group of humans is genetically inferior to another. Instead, he postulates that the inequities between human societies arose largely as a result of geographical factors, among which were the availability of plants and animals for domestication and the axes of the various continents.
His arguments were fascinating and compelling, and although I’m sure they’re not the whole story, I’m equally convinced that they form a pretty significant part of it. However, my favorite parts of the book were the later chapters, where Diamond applies his theories over and over to different civilizations. I felt like I came away with a better picture of pre-history and early history, especially in places like Southeast Asia and Australia, of which I’d been previously completely ignorant. The only part I found a little bizarre was the end of the book, where Diamond (a specialist in physiology) draws a sort of road-map for how to make the disciplines of history and anthropology more scientific. Weird, but I guess you have to take eccentric geniuses as they come.
As a bonus, National Geographic did a great mini-series on Diamond’s ideas, which I am watching with my kids as we prepare to start a homeschooling unit on ancient world history.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I admit, one of the reasons I liked this book was that it made me feel vindicated. When you are the mother of a daughter it is not easy to stem the flow of pink, pink, princesses, pink, and more pink, so it’s nice to have someone besides myself tell me that my sometimes herculean efforts really matter.
Orenstein lays out in pretty stark detail how our consumerist society’s constant insistence on pushing princesses and everything pink on girls contributes to the premature sexualization of our daughters, as well as depression, eating disorders, and drastically reduced opportunities, ambitions and abilities.
I was particularly struck by her chapter on child beauty pageants, which was predictably scathing, but also contextualized the pageants with frightening rationality as just another aspect of the girlie-girl culture that so many people see as innocent and innocuous. This quote from that chapter describing a mother getting her four-year-old daughter ready to perform at such a pageant was priceless:
“You look just like a princess!” the older woman exclaimed, and her daughter grinned. I recalled museum portraits I had seen of eighteenth-century European princesses–little girls in low-cut gowns, their hair piled high, their cheeks and lips rouged red–that were used to attract potential husbands, typically middle-aged men, who could strengthen the girls’ families’ political or financial positions. So yes, I thought, I suppose she does look like a princess.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was lucky enough to find a beautiful copy of this book at the library book store for $1. I remember it being one of my favorite books as a child, and it was out of print for a long time, so it’s not easy to find.
I loved this book as a child because it was so full of interesting ideas–how cultural evolution progresses, the ethical and moral dilemmas that arise when civilizations at different stages of development collide, and the essential humanity that transcends culture. It’s also told simultaneously from three different points of view, which is one of my favorite literary devices.
As well as being excellent thoughtful science fiction, this is a beautiful, nuanced retelling of The Faerie Queen. Reading it as an adult, I realize that it’s not quite as sophisticated or brilliantly written as I thought it was when I was ten years old, but I still think it’s a great book, and it’s definitely one I’d love for Axa to read in a few years.
December 11, 2012 6 Comments
Polling for this presidential election is nearly constant, both in “key battleground states” and in the nation at large. As a bemused inhabitant of one of those key battleground states, I admit that I check the polls . . . well, we won’t say obsessively. But often.
Recently, however, a rather unique poll was brought to my attention–the UPI/CVOTER/WIN-Gallup International Poll. The poll asked 26,000 people in 30 countries outside the U.S. how they would cast their vote for President of the United States of America if they were allowed to vote in our election.
A whopping 81% went with Barack Obama. Many countries polled well over 90% for him. In Iceland it reached a nearly universal 99%. Romney, on the other hand, led the polls in just one country: Israel. And even in Israel, his 65% was anemic compared to the overwhelming popularity of his rival everywhere else.
Although Obama’s lead is also widening at home, the race is much closer here than it is for people abroad. What is it that makes them all so sure? Well, I’ll let the candidates speak for themselves.
Here’s Romney’s foreign policy in a nutshell, straight off his website:
“I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
Do you hear what I hear? Step out of your own shoes for a moment and imagine that you’re hearing about Romney’s “conviction and passion” with the ears of an Englishman, a child in Afghanistan, or a woman in Sudan. What can you expect from this man if he becomes the most powerful man in the world?
To round out the general impression, we have what can only appear to the outside world as a systematic campaign of insults to other countries (politely described as “gaffes”), along with Romney’s blusteringly naive description of the President’s brilliant tactful diplomacy as “weak.” As Karl Inderfurth puts it, in Romney’s projected foreign policy we see a return of the “swagger” of George W. Bush. Heaven help us all.
By contrast, here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s speech to world leaders at the United Nations this week:
“So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, and that consumes our political debates. But when you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people – and not the other way around.
The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people, and all across the world.”
The vibe’s a little different, isn’t it? In Obama’s message, and in his actions as president, I see a strong ability to listen to and communicate effectively with people of other nations and cultures. I see a skillful use of tactful diplomacy to resolve problems, avoid escalating conflicts, and calm the strident voices that scream for war. I see a real commitment to respecting the leaders and people of other countries, and working together to make the world safer, more prosperous, and better for all of us.
He lacks the hubris that puts the United States at the center of the universe. He quotes Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He appeals to the “better angels of our nature.” And so to me, it’s no surprise that people polled around the world look to him as someone they can trust to put the interest of humanity above narrow national interests.
Well, why does it matter? Those people can’t vote anyway.
No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean that the man in the Oval Office doesn’t affect their lives. Sixty-two percent of polled individuals said that American elections highly impacted their own countries. America influences the world economically, culturally, militarily, and in a myriad of other ways. The world desperately needs a U.S. President who can build on common ground, bring people together, and set an example of wisdom, restraint, and moral courage.
To put it bluntly, when I consider America’s superior military capability and the past ten long years of wars abroad, it is clear that for many people, the choice of who becomes President of the United States may be literally a matter of life and death.
I believe in God. And I believe that every person living on this earth is a child of God. Every person. Italians. Pakistanis. Colombians. Congolese. Iranians. In this election, I vote for my brothers and sisters who can do nothing but look on in awe, in suspense, in dread, as in a very real way we decide not only our own fate, but the fate of the world.
These people may speak different languages, pray in different ways, and live very different lives from mine. But like them, I long desperately for a world of hope, of understanding, and of peace. This election, I vote for them; for us; for the belief that we can stand together and choose respect, love and solidarity over superciliousness, hate and war. My vote is a vote for the voiceless.
September 29, 2012 11 Comments
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I adored the movie Inkheart. It was funny and quirky, with lavish sets and costumes, even if it was a little weird that the main characters are named Mo and Meggie. Maybe it’s not so weird in German.
In any case, the movie is right up there with Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, and The Princess Bride when it comes to glorious fantasy cult classics that don’t take themselves too seriously. Inkheart was also set in beautiful Northern Italy, and made me awfully homesick. In particular, Balestrino, the town on the Italian Riviera where Capricorn has his headquarters is now on my list of must-sees next time I go to Italy. So of course I couldn’t resist the book. And I think the book is as good as the movie.
This is a book that revolves around books, so people without a borderline idolatrous relationship with books might be annoyed by it. Cornelia Funke has a delightful way with quotations, and the quotes at the beginning of each chapter really add, especially if you’ve read most of the books from which they come. I think I just might take up bookbinding too.
This is a worthy addition to the children’s fantasy genre, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My librarian found this for me in the children’s section when I asked for books about sugar gliders. It devotes a couple of pages to sugar gliders, but the subject of the book is marsupials in general. I didn’t know that much about them, so I found it fascinating. I am now even more delighted to have a pair of adorable marsupials living in my house. But I also appreciated learning more about some of their relatives. For example, did you know that wombat droppings, once dried, are the perfect size and shape to use as bricks? I am now planning a trip to Australia, with the object of seeing as many interesting marsupials as possible.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This was the only book at my library specifically addressing the care and nurture of sugar gliders. There is some good information (and some adorable photos), but some, like the dietary recommendations, is outdated. If you want information on taking care of sugar gliders, I recommend searching online instead. And I’d love to talk to you about them if you’re considering adding some to your family.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a great book, probably a four star book, but I did get tired of reading about Lizzie Eustace by the end. She is such an annoying character. In fact, most of the main characters are fairly annoying in this book. There’s Lucy Morris, who’s so cloyingly sweet and good and subservient to her lover that I couldn’t stomach her. And Frank Greystock, who I think is a cad and shouldn’t be let off the hook by blaming Lizzie’s female wiles. Lord Fawn is ridiculous, and the rest of the supporting characters are just creepy. Still, it’s a fun story, and full of wry, witty narration and insights into human nature.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book, and I really love Phineas Finn. The weird thing about the Palliser novels is that the main characters in one book become minor supporting characters in the next. So I was happy Phineas got a second book all about him, even if I had to suffer through a whole book about Lizzie Eustace to get here. I’ve also always liked Madame Goesler, so it was great to see her get the limelight as well.
And I am slowly unbending in my opinion about Anthony Trollope. He’s no feminist, but he’s a good enough novelist to portray all his characters, including the women, as the complex individuals they are.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If it is a mark of good dystopian fiction to make your heart pound and leave you plotting your escape from your society at the first glimpse of warning signs, then The Handmaid’s Tale was a success with me. This book seriously freaked me out. Not that I really need an extra excuse to plot an international escape, but still.
I like browsing the book section of thrift stores, because the books are usually under a dollar, and sometimes you can find some real treasures, even though most of the books aren’t really worth buying. I’ve noticed that there are books that consistently appear, so much so that you are almost guaranteed a copy (or multiple copies) at any thrift store you visit. In the United States, it’s usually The Da Vinci Code. In Ireland, it was The Handmaid’s Tale. I passed up at least half a dozen copies, and didn’t know what I was missing.
When I started hearing political commentary earlier this year linking The Handmaid’s Tale to the War on Women, I finally decided to read it. And the Irish connection suddenly made sense. It wasn’t till 1985 (the year the book was published) that condoms and spermicides were even available in Ireland without a prescription. And the Republic of Ireland still prohibits abortion with fewer exceptions than even my very pro-life church (although more than the current Republican platform).
Atwood’s book is devastatingly well-written, and strangely prescient. In the near future of the United States of America, elements of the radical right stage a secret terrorist attack that blows up most of the government, and then publicly blame it on Islamists. Then they set up a “Christian” theocracy that is repressive, racist, and extremely misogynist.
Caveat: The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply disturbing, and contains a fair amount of sex and other material readers may find offensive. Accordingly, it may not make it onto my homeschool booklist for high school. Depending on what the political landscape looks like in ten years.
September 12, 2012 4 Comments
I’ll confess that in some ways I’m still slightly ambivalent about whether I want Barack Obama as president. But I am in no way ambivalent about the very solid fact that I emphatically do NOT want Mitt Romney. And I live in a swing state with a lot of electoral votes. So . . . yesterday we attended an early birthday party at our local Obama For America office.
The last real political meeting I attended was a caucus in Provo, Utah that felt like a cross between a Mormon Sunday School class and a high school popularity contest. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the Obama Party turned out to be delightful, with a very fun vibe.
It started out with a Southern barbeque, complete with homemade baked beans, potato salad, and red velvet cupcakes. The buffet was manned by the same ladies who’d made the food, and they encouraged us to try everything.
Next, Tony and I walked around to different tables, deciding which political activities we’d like to engage in. We settled on registering people to vote and precinct-walking. Tony assured the coordinator that we were experienced precinct-walkers, and that last time around we’d even done it with our kids on our backs in baby carriers. He omitted to mention the reason for that particular precinct-walking experience, which just happened to be promoting Proposition 8 in California. I guess experience is experience.
Meanwhile, the kids were ushered to a kids’ corner, where they colored, ate cookies, and passed around the Obama mask.
Then we had a little assembly and watched this video. Seventeen minutes is kind of long for a political video, but it doesn’t feel so long when you’re in small-town, racially-charged America, and everyone around you is cheering their hearts out for a president who they feel really represents them. I’m having problems lately with embedding video, but here’s the link:
It’s a very nicely-done video, with lots of inspiring “noble leader making excruciatingly difficult but ultimately amazing decision” shots. If you’re for Obama, you will love it, and might possibly even cry. If you’re not, you most likely won’t.
After the video, there were some speeches by people about how excited they were and how much they loved being Democrats. But they made sure to welcome the Republicans and Independents too, so I felt included. The best speech was by a woman who participated in sit-ins during the 1960′s Civil Rights movement right here in Volusia County. She was awesome.
A good time was had by all, even me. I typically feel fairly disenfranchised by U.S. politics, and end up in the voting booth still trying to decide uncomfortably between Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and Yoda. I’m still conflicted, and I’m still going to be off to Europe whenever I get the chance, but I felt pretty proud to be an American last night, doing my civic duty.
And if you live in West Volusia County, you might just find me on your doorstep next to my indefatigable husband this Saturday, encouraging you to get out in November and vote for Barack Obama.
August 2, 2012 6 Comments
This week’s book reviews (with the exception of #1, which is just an irresistible indulgence) are dedicated to people who want to save the world.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is an absolute delight: witty, intelligent, exciting, and original.
I am addicted to footnotes (I even like reading annotated critical editions of novels), so I adored the abundant tongue-in-cheek scholarly footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also appreciated the length. No matter how quickly you read, you won’t be finishing it in an afternoon. At over 1000 pages, there is just so much of this book to love.
The interweaving of real history, 19th century British culture, and wild magic was seamless and satisfying. The characters are fascinating, quirky, and eminently memorable (the male characters, at least. The female characters are decidedly stereotyped and mostly minor. For that reason I would not compare this to a Jane Austen novel, as some have).
The book is full of quotable lines (“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” ). There are lots of hilarious scenes, and it’s deliciously unpredictable. I’m almost ready to pick it up and read it again right now.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While wondering what (if anything) to do with his life, bartender Doc Hendley decided to go to Darfur for a year on a mission to bring clean water to villages affected by the ongoing violence between rival Sudanese factions.
Hendley’s prose is a little rough, but his unstudied informality is actually endearing. Behind the gruff biker rebelling against his straitlaced religious past (his father is a “preacher man”) is a genuine person awakening to what he has to contribute to the world.
Although I enjoyed some of the more exciting incidents, like getting shot at by Janjaweed militias, my favorite parts of the book were Hendley’s introspective moments, and his totally unselfconscious meditations on life, his Christian faith, and the paradoxes of international development.
The organization Hendley formed, Wine to Water, currently provides clean water in nine countries, with a focus on sustainability and local cooperation. If you’re interested in hosting a Wine to Water fundraising party, you can check out the website here: http://winetowater.org/get-involved
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you’re looking for an insider’s account of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, you won’t do better than this. Wael Ghonim was not only an eyewitness to the events of the revolution, but also a key figure in it. An executive with Google, he used his marketing experience to effectively spread the message of revolution to the youth of Egypt, break the fear barrier, and bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets.
A good portion of the book is made up of primary source documents, in the form of posts he made on the wall of the Facebook page he created to mobilize the youth of Egypt. His passionate Facebook appeals work synergistically with his personal narrative to create a riveting, very immediate reading experience. I felt like I was living the Egyptian Revolution along with Ghonim.
Although Ghonim’s at times overblown prose might seem excessive to readers unfamiliar with Egypt and Egyptians, just go ahead and suspend your disbelief and take him seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with an inspiring look into the mind and work of a modern-day hero.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read the first 50 pages of this book in the original Spanish, but then switched over to the English translation because #1 I’m too lazy to spend that much time with the dictionary and #2 it was just too weird to picture this Irish guy speaking Spanish.
I really liked the intermittent flashback format, because it gave the book (and the main character’s life) coherence. Whatever the later controversies of his life, Roger Casement has my respect and admiration for his tireless and self-sacrificing quest to rid the world of injustice. Over a couple of decades, he courageously persevered in exposing the Rubber Barons’ horrific abuses of native peoples in the Congo and Peru, despite death threats, severe illness, and extreme emotional strain.
The last third of the book, which deals with the struggle for Irish independence, is not as readable. Casement’s claim that colonialism in Ireland was essentially the same as in the Congo is not really credible. Still, I have a soft spot for Irish revolutionaries, and I am so glad that he can rest in peace now knowing that his country is free.
The work is subtitled “A Novel,” but it reads much more like a biography. I wish that Llosa had included something at the end to assist the reader in separating fact from fiction. I’d like to know how much the Roger Casement I grew to care about is like the real one.
Although the “Black Diaries” are admittedly an important part of the plot (and I think it’s sick and tragic how the British government made use of them), I didn’t really appreciate reading so much out of them. Llosa’s claim that they were authored by Casement but largely fantasies rather than descriptions of real exploits seemed a little weird, but I’m not really qualified to judge its merits.
Advisory: For those who, like me, are prudish to some degree, be aware that there is some sexual content (i.e. the contents of said “black diaries”) in this book.
July 6, 2012 2 Comments
I woke up this morning to the above-pictured Time magazine cover and accompanying media storm. On the one hand, I love it. Breastfeeding is a normal thing, healthy both biologically and emotionally for mother and child. And the World Health Organization recommends that women nurse their children at least until age two for optimum health and development.
That’s why on the surface it’s confusing why such a photograph would be labeled by the Media as “controversial,” “shocking,” or “provocative.” Until I remember that it’s par for the course in our culture to sexualize every possible thing we can. Let’s face it, the fact that breastfeeding #1 involves breasts, and #2 in our society is typically relegated to bedrooms, out-of-the-way corners, and even bathrooms, causes certain people to view it as a subset of sex. Sad, but true.
It’s not clear that the photographer even intended the images to carry sexual overtones. An interview with photographer Martin Schoeller on Time’s website said he modeled them after “religious images of the Madonna and Child.” If you take a look at this beautiful collection of religious art depicting Mary and Jesus, I think you’ll agree with me that Schoeller’s images are tame by comparison.
However, the photo’s caption makes the magazine’s position clear, accusing attachment parenting of “driv[ing] some women to extremes.” The reason for the negative portrayal of breastfeeding past infanthood is obvious from the associated article title: “Are You Mom Enough?” Earlier this year, a similar interview with a Hollywood star who practices attachment parenting opened with the telling line, “Mayim Bialik parents in a way that makes the rest of us look like slackers.”
Why are we threatened by people who parent differently from how we do? Why do we feel this need to put down other people to make ourselves feel better? We’re all different people, part of different families, and in different circumstances. We all make choices about how to raise our children, and I like to think most of us make those choices carefully, with our children’s welfare and happiness in mind.
Yes, I breastfed my daughter until she was at least as old as the boy in the picture. But no, I don’t think you’re not “mom enough” if you didn’t. Let’s stop judging one another and start celebrating together the many different and beautiful ways we love and nurture our children.
May 11, 2012 1 Comment
Guess what came out of my mailbox today? My copy of Bridges, the alumni magazine for Brigham Young University’s Kennedy Center for International Studies. And guess what I found on page 14? An article about the Tunisian Revolution. Written by me.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already heard what I have to say about Tunisia. But if you think it’s as cool as I think it is to see my name in print, you can access the online version here.
March 20, 2012 4 Comments
Can I tell you again how awesome Tunisia is? At the Friends of Syria meeting on Monday, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president (chosen just recently in December by the Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament) played an active role. He suggested only half ironically that Russia back up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by offering him asylum should he choose to abdicate. And today Marzouki put his money where his mouth is, and offered President Assad and his family political asylum in Tunisia itself.
Proffering what even Marzouki admitted were undeservedly soft terms for a dictator might seem odd, especially coming from a country so intimately acquainted with the pain of despotism. However, I don’t think anyone could possibly question Mr. Marzouki’s motives. An M.D. by profession, he is also a long-time human rights activist and admirer of Gandhi, and has spent his life studying transitions to democracy. Like most Tunisian political activists, he was arrested multiple times by Ben Ali’s regime, and spent many years in exile.
His offer of political asylum simply acknowledges the reality that President Assad’s safe departure is the best way to secure a democratic transition and future political and social stability for the Syrian people. After all, consider the contrast right now between Tunisia, whose former dictator-president lives on unpunished in peaceful luxury in Saudi Arabia, and still-troubled Libya or (heaven help us!) tortured Iraq, both of whose presidents met vengeful and violent ends on the heels of international intervention.
Mr. Marzouki is in the running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If he can get Mr. Assad to accept his invitation, I’d say he definitely deserves it. And who knows? Maybe an offer of hospitality from a fellow physician-president is just what the mad ophthalmologist needs to start his desperately needed early retirement.
February 28, 2012 1 Comment
This time last year I was in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of revolution, and observing curfew every night to stay out of gunfights between the army and the rogue police still loyal to ousted president Ben Ali. Egypt had followed close on Tunisia’s heels, and Qaddafi’s Libya was teetering. But as of yet, despite widespread unrest across the Middle East, Syria was still as silent as the grave.
Today in Tunisia, representatives of over seventy nations, (including the United States, but conspicuously missing China, Russia and Iran) are meeting to consider once again what can be done for the people of Syria. The party (known as “Friends of Syria”) was briefly crashed by several hundred Assad supporters who had been bussed to the hotel where the talks were being held. The infiltrators gained access to the hotel, but were eventually stopped at a security cordon.
Never having visited Tunisia while huge posters of Ben Ali’s face still graced every building, I couldn’t compare pre-revolution Tunisia to the euphoria of freedom I saw last year. But I could make a pretty good guess at what it must have been like. After all, the Syria I lived in was similarly plastered with posters of Assad, and the Syrian secret police were equally effective at stamping out even whispers of discontent.
Yesterday I opened my box of Syria memorabilia to see what pieces of Syria I had kept. It was a bit like opening a box of letters from a tragically-ended love affair. My heart did that same little double flip in the pit of my stomach. Among all the maps, postcards and brochures, here are a few of the things I found:
One fairly ornate green dress, which I fell in love with and bought at the Souq el-Hamidiyeh on one of my many outings there “to practice my Arabic.” Yes, I used to wear it sometimes afterward.
A gorgeous inlaid wood box; one of those arts like damask tablecloths for which Damascus is famous. I actually have several of these, of varying sizes and shapes.
One poster of Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez, wreathed in flowers and fireworks (dog-eared from having been hung in our apartment in Damascus when a dictator straight out of 1984 was still a novelty to me).
One small book of out-of-focus official photographs from a Mother’s Day visit to the border of the occupied Golan territory. If you can’t read it, a sample caption is the upper one: “Al – Golan hospital destructed by zionists. !!”
The offending keychain. He hasn’t really changed a bit, has he?
Journals I kept during my time in Syria. I am a sporadic journal-keeper, but I wrote almost every single day in Syria. I’m curiously reluctant to open these. I turned twenty-one in Syria, and living there was in many ways a rite of passage for me. It was the first time I’d ever been so far away from everything: my family, my friends, my country, and the way I had always understood the world. I found myself suddenly dropped into what was simultaneously a beautiful dream and a sinister nightmare, and I attacked it with all the passion of an uncontrollably romantic temperament. I was enamored of everything. I was in love with the whole country; the ancient streets, the beautiful colors of the souq, the incredibly hospitable people, the unresolved angst of the Golan, the ghostly ruins rising out of the desert, the attentive men who were always proposing marriage, and a whole way of life that was so foreign as to be irresistibly alluring.
Always in the background was that hint of danger; the stranger around the corner, the look of fear on a friend’s face when I said something insufficiently circumspect about the government, the security guards with machine guns everywhere, the feeling of being slowly suffocated by totalitarianism. I was both fascinated and repelled by the amount of control the government exercised over people’s minds. I was always in disagreement with myself about whether I could stand to live long-term under such severe repession. Because other than that, Syria was a perfectly beautiful place to live. My secret dream was to buy one of those crumbling houses in the old city in Damascus and slowly renovate it, like a sort of “under the Arabian sun.”
In fact, I’ve tried our whole marriage to convince Tony of how delightful it would be to live in Syria. The closest we’ve gotten is Tunisia. And in Tunisia, after that gloriously unexpected revolution, when I watched everyone I met taking in great draughts of their newly discovered freedom, of course I thought immediately of Syria. Of how much it would mean to so many Syrians to feel what the Tunisians felt on that incredible Friday when they filled Avenue Bourguiba and demanded that their president leave, and he went. And then they could talk, for the first time, really say everything they had wanted to say for a lifetime. They didn’t stop talking for weeks, and listening to them was like listening to the birds sing and the tigers roar on the first morning of the world.
There’s really nothing more to say, except that I hope beyond hope that something will come out of this meeting in Tunis today; that something will come out of something sometime soon that will bring peace, real peace, to Syria.
February 24, 2012 4 Comments
I absolutely cannot stop listening to this song, so I thought I’d share it with you. It is the official version, so you have to actually go to YouTube to watch it. But it’s worth it.
Fashionable Italian hippies recreating Woodstock in Amsterdam, and Laura Pausini by firelight. What’s not to love?
February 22, 2012 No Comments