Category Archives: Middle East/North Africa

The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan

You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.

As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Iran, Middle East/North Africa

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

I can’t believe it’s already the third week of Nonfiction November. This week it’s hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, one of my long-time favorite book bloggers. Our theme is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert.

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

If you’ve been following my blog, especially for a long time you know I enjoy books about the Middle East. Of all the countries in the region, there’s two that interest me the most. One is Israel, and the other is Iran. Perhaps this is because Iran is so different when compared to the rest of the nations of the Middle East. Geographically, it sits on the periphery of the Middle East at the gateway to Central Asia. While most of the Middle Eastern’s nations are overwhelming Arab Iran’s population is heavily Persian, both in ethnicity and language. With 85 per cent of the world’s Muslims Sunni, Iran is majority Shia. Lastly, its complex political system is bewildering mix of theocratic authoritarianism and limited representational democracy, even if the country’s ballot box is subject to the whim of the ruling Mullahs.

I also suspect my fascination with Iran is also a personal one. Being a “man of certain age” I can remember when events in Iran dominated our newspaper headlines and evening newscasts. Perhaps my coming of age during this period has had a lasting effect on me, resulting in my life-long fascination with this country.

Let’s say you’ve read Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad and you wanna learn more about Iran. If that’s the case here’s six additional books I’d like to recommend. While there’s probably no shortage of great books on Iran, I’ve restricted my list to Iranian authors. Americans have a nasty habit of imposing their views on others. With that in mind perhaps it’s best to let the Iranians speak for themselves.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr – I read this gem of a book not long after it was published in 2006. It’s an outstanding big picture analysis of not just Iran’s rising influence in the region but also its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd –  This  2008 book was recommended by a young college student I met one morning in a neighborhood coffee shop. She called it the best book on Iran she’d ever read. I feel the same way about it.

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi – If her name looks familiar it’s probably because she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution by Amir Taheri – A passionate, detailed and insightful critique of the Iranian regime.

Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival

A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – One of my all-time favorite books by an Iranian émigré. His thrilling true story reads like a spy novel.

 

 

If, after reading these half-dozen books you’re inspired to read more there’s other books on Iran I can recommend. One of my personal favorites is The Secret War with Iran: Israel and the West’s 30-Year Clandestine Struggle by Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman. If you’re looking for a fresh look at US-Iran relations from the perspective of former career CIA officer, I’d recommend Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian SuperpowerOn a similar note, I’d also recommend Stephen Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future. Lastly, although he can be a bit dry and verbose, Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran and The Struggle for Iran are also worth the effort. 

But alas, there’s a ton of books on Iran I still have yet to read and want to. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ve never read Reading Lolita in Tehran or Lipstick Jihad. Elaine Sciolino’s Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran has been on my TBR forever, along with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs. As for more recent offerings, I’d love to read Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Andrew Scott’s The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran and Barry Meier’s Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran. With a list of books like this it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

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About Time I Read It: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.

As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.

Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.

Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Seems like the more I enjoyed reading a book, the longer it takes me to post a review of it. As to why, I’ve always thought it’s because frankly, outstanding books are not easy to write about and deep down, I’m afraid any review I write won’t do the book justice. I’m sure that’s the case with Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I read this thing months ago and it’s taken me forever to get off my butt and write about it. Well, that wait is over.

Published 15 years ago in 2002, Paris 1919 has been on my list to read for over six years, ever since I learned Amy of the blog Amy Reads happened to be reading it. Those following my blog might also remember Paris 1919 was one of the books, just like The Great Gamble that was featured in the post “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” With this being the hundred year anniversary of World War I, from time to time I’d at check-in at my public library to see if a copy happened to be available. One of those times I got lucky and a copy was available for the taking. So, of course I grabbed it. And loved it.

It’s hard to read Paris 1919 and not marvel in both the scope of the Paris Peace Conference but also its lasting consequences. For one, in today’s hyper interconnected, 24 hour news cycle driven, Twitter-crazed world, it’s hard to imagine the world’s leaders setting up shop in some city for six months just to hash out a peace treaty. Also, some of the participating delegations and their respective support staff were, numerically speaking, huge. The British and America groups rented out entire hotels and even brought their own nationals to staff the places. Those attending the Paris Peace Conference, in official or unofficial capacities was like a who’s who of the mid-20th century. Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Marie of Romania, FDR and Eleanor, Arnold J. Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes all rubbed elbows at the Conference in some degree or another. (Even French novelist Marcel Proust was seen at one of the Conference’s many dinner parties. According to MacMillan he was overheard asking one his fellow dinner guests to regale him in great detail of the Conference’s developments.)

As for the consequences of the Conference, with a few exceptions the blueprint that was drawn in 1919 holds true today. The great land-based empires of western Eurasia were carved up. Russia lost, then won, then lost its Baltic territories. With the collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, Poland regained its independence and Czechoslovakia became independent. (Although 70 years later it would split in two). A Serb-dominated Yugoslavia would arise from the ashes of WWI only to horribly disintegrate by the century’s end. Lastly, the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Middle Eastern territories were seized by Britain and France. As a result of this land grab British Palestine became the State of Israel. The Kurds were left without a homeland. Iraq is a sectarian mess. The rest of the Middle East, especially the former Ottoman lands have been unstable for years, especially recently. Lastly, over the last 75 years there hasn’t been a group of freedom fighters or separatists who haven’t espoused the Wilsonian term of self-determination at least one in a manifesto or proclamation.

Paris 1919 is easily one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my year-end best of list. Consider this book highly recommended.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

You probably remember the novels featured in my two previous posts, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I found among the new releases and featured titles displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance of my public library. Interestingly enough, the topic of this post, Teddy Wayne’s debut novel Kapitoil  I also discovered sitting on one of those shelves. But that was way back in 2010, right after it was published and prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. You see, almost a decade ago on several occasions I saw Wayne’s novel sitting there and while I toyed with reading it, alas I never did. Nevertheless, its title stuck in my head and for years off and on I thought about reading it. Then, about a week ago I got the itch to finally do so. Luckily for me, I was able to find an available copy at my public library. Much like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I burned through Kapitoil in no time. And I enjoyed it.

Our story begins in the fall of 1999 when Karim Issar, a 20-something, self-taught computer programmer from the Arab nation of Qatar travels to New York City to assist financial giant Schrub Equities in safeguarding its IT infrastructure from the looming disaster known at the time as the Y2K bug. Finding this particular project simple and uninspiring, the highly capably and talented Karim shifts his attention to a side project, a computer program that uses news articles to predict changes in oil prices. Soon his new program is earning the company tons of cash, which does not go unnoticed by founder and CEO Derek Schrub who begins taking the young Karim under his wing, showering him with attention and lavish perks. But even though Karim is on the fast-track to wealth and prestige, he worries his invention is merely making money off the misfortune of others. He also fears losing ownership of the program, and with that his chance to  better humankind by using the program’s core algorithm to track and prevent global disease outbreaks.

I enjoyed Wayne’s novel and perhaps what I liked most about it was seeing Karim slowly acclimate to American life. Through countless fits and starts, he gains a deeper understanding of American English as well as our nation’s nuanced, and at times contradictory cultural mores. Awkwardly, he makes only a few friends, but those friendships are authentic and meaningful. Kapitoil reminded me a lot of movies like 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson and 1986’s Crocodile Dundee in which a relatively innocent outsider finds himself in a large American city and in process of learning the ropes we the audience see our own culture in a new light as it’s perceived through the eyes of a foreigner.

In conclusion, I found Kapitoil an enjoyable read. Since Teddy Wayne has written a few more novels since Kapitoil was published almost a decade ago, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more of his stuff in the future.

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