Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction  hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie at Doing Dewey has agreed to host. In her post she enlists us to offer up our recommendations.

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

In previous years I’ve approached this by discussing an extensive collection of nonfiction/fiction pairings but this time I’d like to do something different. I’ll be featuring an historical novel I recently read along with several works of nonfiction that make for wonderful follow-up reading.

Published in 2018, Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo jumps back and forth between the early 2000s, 1897 and the 11th century. Joseph, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is puzzled when a strange package from Egypt arrives in the mail one day. Intrigued by its cryptic contents, the son of a Jewish mother and an estranged, now-deceased Muslim father decides to put his university studies on hold and visit the land of his ancestors in search of answers.

The heart of the novel is Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, for centuries center of the city’s vibrant Jewish community until a series of the mass exoduses starting in 1956 spurred by Egyptian President Nasser’s anti-Jewish and anti-western measures drove them from the country. In the late 1890s the synagogue would achieve worldwide notoriety after its repository of ancient documents or Geniza was mined and catalogued by a visiting Cambridge scholar, his young female assistant and a pair of brilliant middle aged Scottish twin sisters. Also, legend had it the synagogue was the secret home of the Ezra Scroll, written by the great Lawgiver himself 2,500 years ago and purported to possess powerful supernatural properties.

This multiple award-winning historical novel is an enjoyable mix of intrigue, romance and a touch of magic. If you take my recommendation and end up reading it, I can’t encourage you enough to follow it up with a few other books, all nonfiction.

Start with Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Published in 2011, this National Jewish Book Award finalist is a detailed look at the history of the Geniza, its treasured contents and the intrepid individuals who helped bring it all to light. Located in an out of the way annex of the synagogue, the Geniza was kind of hallowed dumping ground for old letters, business records, marriage contracts, divorce writs, holy scriptures and everything in between. Dubbed by some scholars as the “living Sea Scrolls” they provided a highly detailed look at centuries of everyday Jewish life in the region and beyond.

Proceed next to Janet Soskice’s 2009 The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Here you will learn more about two of the late-Victorian era’s most fascinating, and under-appreciated women. Denied higher educations thanks to the sexism of the day, the pair nevertheless went on to master Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac plus a host of other languages (between the two of them close to a dozen) and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the Levant where they were instrumental in locating and acquiring a number of ancient Christian manuscripts. Later, the sisters, together with Solomon Schechter would transport the contents of the Ibn Ezra Geniza back to Cambridge where it could be secured safely and extensively studied.

As the old TV pitchman used to say, “but wait, there’s more.” For great looks into the lost world of Egypt’s Jewish community I highly recommend a quartet of great family memoirs. Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, her 2011 follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, André Aciman’s 1994 Out of Egypt and Gini Alhadeff’s 1997 The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family all provide vivid portraits of an exotic yet cultured place that managed to be Middle Eastern, European, Muslim and Jewish all at the same time. But sadly is no more.

About Time I Read It: Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Next time you’re at the library, do yourself a favor. If you see a book displayed as a staff recommendation grab it. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s led me to excellent books like David Liss’s historical novel The Coffee Trader or Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser or Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.

Recently, one of my local public libraries decided showcase a number of staff recommendations. Following their sagely advice I borrowed two, one which happened to be Joby Warrick’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. I couldn’t put it down and theres’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

In the early 2000s, al-Qaeda was seen as America’s most feared scourge. But in just a few years a rival terrorist organization materialized out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Founded by a semi-literate Jordanian street thug turned Islamic militant the group attacked US occupation forces, beheaded captives and bombed Shia holy sites throughout Iraq, pushing the already chaotic and wounded nation into a state of civil war.  For the next decade its fortunes would wax and wane but within 10 years its fighters would accomplish what al-Qaeda could never achieve: conquer a swath of the Arab World and impose Islamic rule. Proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (rendered into English as ISIS) its vengeful leaders reigned with an iron hand, committing a host of atrocities including genocide, sexual enslavement and wholesale destruction of hallowed archeological sites. It took the concerted military effort by both Western and Arab nations to break the group’s hold on the area. But not before ISIS could wreck havoc on the Arab World and even Paris.

In chronicling the evolution of ISIS Warrick expertly conveys the group’s rise to prominence. Most fascinating of all, he shows how this was inadvertently facilitated by the actions of others, even those committed to fighting Islamic terrorism.

  • Founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have lived out his life as a low-level criminal had his parents not remanded him to his local mosque for religious instruction where he soon became radicalized. Reinventing himself, he fled to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Mujahideen. Later, he returned to Jordan and emboldened by his experience embarked on his own holy war, this time against his native Jordanians. Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
  • Al-Zarqawi would have languished in prison for years, even decades and eventually forgotten, like so many other imprisoned Islamic radicals had he not benefited from a stroke of good luck. In 1999 Jordan’s King Hussein succumbed to cancer and was succeeded by his son Abdullah II. In keeping with Jordanian custom the newly crowned king authorized the release of a number of prisoners, one of which happened to be al-Zarqawi. Later, once al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a terrorist mastermind (orchestrating attacks in Iraq and later Jordan) Abdullah was furious security officials deemed al-Zarqawi worthy of early release.
  • Sold to the American public and the world at large as an essential undertaking in the fight against terrorism, Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the armed invasion of Iraq. After toppling Saddam’s regime and driving the country’s Sunni-dominated Baathists from positions of authority a chaotic power vacuum soon ensued. This provided the perfect environment for al-Zarqawi and his followers (including a number of Sunni military officers) to attack US forces and Shia holy sites.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi graduate student studying Islamic theology when he was swept up in a raid by US forces while visiting an old college friend. After thrown in a detention camp by the Americans the “civilian internee” so impressed his fellow detainees with his command of Islamic jurisprudence he quickly gained a following among the camp’s militant elements. In 2004 after deemed “low level” he was released. Thanks to his reputation as a gifted Islamic scholar he was soon brought into the ISIS fold as its chief Sharia lawgiver. After holding the number three position in the organization he eventually became its leader after an American military strike took out ISIS’s top two men.
  • After the last US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began taking a harder line against the country’s Sunnis. His purging of prominent Sunnis from his administration and crushing Sunni protests would drive many of them into the welcoming arms of ISIS. Reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose the group would out-battle the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi National Army and capture a huge chunk of Iraqi territory.
  • In the early 2010s as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East thousands in Syria protested the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Refusing to step down or make any concessions whatsoever Assad instead ordered his security forced to fire on demonstrators, sparking a civil war that would tear the country apart. Before long a huge contested zone opened up  in the country’s interior where a myriad of anti-government rebels fought against Assad’s forces, his assorted foreign allies and each other. Taking advantage of the situation, ISIS fighters carved out their own Islamic caliphate to rule puritanically and use as a base from which to launch operations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Taking advantage of a long series of unforced errors and miscalculations ISIS leaders were able to grow their terrorist organization. No wonder Napoleon said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

This is an outstanding book, well deserved of all the praise. Readable, insightful and comprehensive, it should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Black Flags highly recommended.

The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol

I can’t remember how and when I first heard of Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance but when a Kindle edition became available through my public library’s Overdrive portal I immediately downloaded it. Published in April of this year, Akyol asks why the Muslim world lags so behind the West in such key areas as democracy, civil liberties and scientific and technological achievement and what can be done to address these disparities?

In search of answers Akyol-a Turkish journalist, New York Times contributing opinion writer and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute- explores Islamic history and concludes in the Middle Ages, when Muslim theologians and ruling powers elevated blind religious faith over reason and refused to incorporate valuable concepts and principles from communities and traditions outside Islam it effectively closed the door on further development.  Intellectually hamstrung and closed to novel and foreign ideas, the Islamic world, unlike the Christian West never experienced the Enlightenment nor its subsequent developments: the scientific and industrial revolutions, democracy, human rights and religious pluralism.

The motivation for this medieval closing of the Islamic mind was more than just theological. According to Akyol, the insistence on believing tenants of faith solely on Islamic scripture and tradition instead through more open-ended processes like philosophical reasoning gave weight to those who believed the Caliphs and those like them should be simply obeyed because God said so. More flexible and less slavishly literal interpretations of Islam might lead to Muslims questioning the rule of an oppressive or incompetent ruler. Putting the emphasis on “what” a person should believe instead of the “why” would hinder deeper explorations into the nature of truth, promoting an overall rigid faith leaving it unable to modernize as times changed.

Reopening Muslim Minds reminds me of other books that have appeared over the last decade and a half, in many ways a response to the rise of Islamic terrorism. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America, Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now all ask in varying ways what went wrong in the Islamic world and how could it be fixed.

Reopening Muslim Minds is no doubt controversial, perhaps even downright offensive to some. But he makes countless compelling, if not convincing arguments. I enjoyed Akyol’s book and look forward to reading what else he’s written on the Islamic world.

20 Books of Summer: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

As I pointed out in an early post, I’m a big fan of Dexter Filkins. His 2013 New Yorker piece on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was top notch and became must reading after Soleimani’s 2019 assassination. But as much as I love his New Yorker stuff I still hadn’t read his highly praised 2008 book The Forever War. Lately however I’ve been craving books on the Middle East and the Islamic World so when I spotted a copy of The Forever War at the library I figured now was as good a time as any to finally read it. Filkins’s well-written book made for almost effortless reading and like so many back-listed books I’ve read over the years left me wishing I’d read it years ago.

During his years as a foreign correspondent Filkins spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, battlegrounds in America’s War on Terror. His collection of dispatches begins in the late 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ends in Iraq, roughly around the time of the “Surge”, necessitated by the escalating insurgency and corresponding Sunni-Shia civil war. In addition, Filkins also reports from Ground Zero in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showing us the face of war on American soil.

To me the most memorable take away from Forever War is the everyday look of military occupation. Besides the endless ambushes, bloodshed and grabbing suspected insurgents for detention and questioning it’s also the blurred lines between friend and foe. The friendly face you meet today could kill you tomorrow. Yesterday’s sworn enemy may throw in his lot with you today should he find it politically and/or financially advantageous. Just the simple act of grabbing lunch in a local restaurant is a potential risk to life and limb as evident the moment you walk in, when regulars stop talking and begin staring at you, like some scene in an old western.

Thanks to Filkins’s direct, narrative style The Forever War is easy and entertaining reading. Even though it was published over 12 years ago in contains valuable insights into the bitterly contested countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you’re looking for good books to explain the bloody conflicts behind today’s news headlines, consider The Forever War.

20 Books of Summer: Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

I’ve mentioned before of all the countries in the Middle East the two that intrigue me the most are probably the region’s biggest outliers: Iran and Israel. Modern heirs to ancient kingdoms, unlike the rest of the countries in the region neither is majority Arab or Sunni Muslim. Also unlike their neighbors neither is ruled by an absolute monarch or military strongman. At one time close allies today Israel and Iran are bitter enemies, each eying the other with grave concern, despite being a thousand miles apart and sharing no common border.

Maybe that’s why I’m more apt to grab a book on Iran or Israel as opposed to another Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Not long ago at the public library I did just that, helping myself to a copy of Jamie Maslin’s Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran. In his travel memoir published in 2009 Maslin recounts his adventures traveling throughout Iran, visiting its attractions and perhaps above all interacting with its citizens.

Originally, Maslin’s plan was to cross Southern Eurasia overland ending with a visit to his brother in Shanghai.  Unfortunately, financial difficulties nixed the possibility of such an extensive trip. Instead, he opted to follow just a portion of the old hippie trail, making Iran his intended destination entering the country from neighboring Turkey. Seen by most Westerners as a horrible place run by an oppressive theocratic dictatorship Maslin’s fellow Brits thought he was crazy to visit Iran and even he too was fearful some wild-eyed mullah might sentence him to having a hand chopped off or eye gouged out for some perceived petty crime. But to his pleasant surprise he found the overwhelming majority of those he met friendly and hospitable.

Even as a visitor from the United Kingdom, a country Iranians revile, along with the United States for helping engineer the coup that toppled Iran’s reformist Prime Minister and installed despotic Shah Maslin was showered with hospitality almost from the moment he arrived. Whisked away countless times for lunches and dinners as an honored guest, later he’d find himself hosted in their homes like a beloved relative. Complete strangers acted as helpful translators and go-betweens, assisting him with travel plans and even paying for his bus tickets and such. He frequently received gifts, and before long mastered the Iranian custom of politely refusing three times before graciously accepting.

While Iran might be ruled by a bunch of religious zealots hell-bent on ruling with an iron hand its citizenry aren’t automatons cursed with sheep-like mentality. Throughout his travels Maslin encountered taxi drivers who rolled down the window to shout obscenities at clerics on the street and shopkeepers who saluted prominently displayed Ayatollah Khomeini wall portraits with throat slitting gestures. Alcohol, while illegal could still be acquired with little effort, reminiscent of America during Prohibition. (Maslin recalls imbibing several times in the company of friendly Iranians.) Even though there’s strict sexual segregation in almost all facets of public life (the only place where men and women mix in public is on Tehran’s crowded subway) young Iranian singles of both sexes, especially in urban areas mingle in secretive parties from time to time. Puritanical as Iranian society is, it’s common for some couples to practice sigheh, an officially sanctioned form of temporary marriage.

I found myself drawn to Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn because I wanted an intimate look at Iran that was light yet informative. With those expectations met I have no complaints.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Spy Handler by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer

Another book I picked up at the library along with Hitlerland and A Mirror Garden was Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer’s Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. Since I’ve always enjoyed good cloak and dagger stuff it was hard to resist borrowing this 2004 book, especially since I loved Feifer’s 2009 book The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. (It easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list back in 2017.) Even though Spy Handler is fairly light it still took me awhile to read because I kept getting distracted by other books. To be honest, I’m not sure just how much I really liked it. I will say however it gave me an inside at the shadowy world of International espionage from the perspective of a former KGB officer. And that is never a bad thing.

Victor Cherkashin spent a lifetime as a KGB officer around the world in India, Australia, Lebanon, West Germany and finally Washington, DC in the United States. Over the course of his career he was tasked with keeping an eye of Soviet citizens abroad as well as obtaining valuable information on foreign intelligence services and their operations. Eventually, his highest priority was the recruitment of foreign agents, and if needed, rooting out of spies within his own agency. Most importantly of all, Cherkashin was instrumental in facilitating two of the KGB’s biggest espionage coups: the recruitment of agents Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI). 

In the movies, James Bond and Jason Bourne are forever battling their enemies with gunfire and brutal hand to hand combat but in reality most spy craft is conducted nonviolently. Like high level corporate sales reps spies approach their adversaries with charm and guile in hopes of getting them to switch their allegiances, or at least cooperate in some way, usually by supplying valuable information. Since their intended targets have similar goals, the result is an almost gentlemanly fraternity of rival intelligence agents, each side surprisingly cordial to the other. (In hopes of maintaining friendly relations spies have taken their counterparts and their families to sporting events or out fishing.) 

Ironically, when agents become traitors frequently it’s not because of this glad-handing. Even during the Cold War as the two sides squared off at each other personal, not ideological reasons motivated agents to betray their respective countries. For many it was simply financial, be it the need to pay off gambling debts, live a lavish lifestyle or support an expensive mistress. Passed over for promotions, demoted or simply feeling not valued by their employer some agents were motivated by revenge. (After the seriously ill son of a KGB agent died after being denied permission to seek medical care in the West the agent later agreed to spy for the United  States.) 

But despite all the niceties, spying is a risky game. More often than not spies are exposed not caught. All it takes is one well-placed turncoat with access to high-level information to blow the covers of countless agents. Some who approach foreign operatives with tantalizing information are double agents, hoping to keep their rival agency off balance with bogus or misleading intelligence. Some spies, if they do manage to get caught, agree to secretly do the bidding of their original employer in hopes of leniency. These triple agents can string their handlers along for years and in the process do all kinds of damage. With human foibles trumping even the most sophisticated technology a spy agency is only as strong as its weakest agents. 

Middle Eastern Memoirs: A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

I’m a sucker for memoirs by Iranians. Firoozeh Dumas’s, Funny in Farsi and Laughing without an Accent made me chuckle while first hand accounts of imprisonment like Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran and Maziar Bahari’s Then They Came for Me left me thankful I didn’t live in a police state. Seems like I’ve been digging on Iranian memoirs since the day I began posting on WordPress. Back in 2017 I featured several of them in my Nonfiction November post. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll finally get around to reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad, two Iranian memoirs that everyone has read except me. 

Two weeks ago at the public library I came across copy of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s 2007 memoir A Mirror Garden. Born in Iran in the 1920s, she lived a long and rich life, bouncing back between Iran and New York City before passing away two years ago at the ripe old age of 96. In her memoir (with help from Zara Houshmand) she recalls growing up in rural Iran before moving to Tehran with her family after her father was elected to the nation’s parliament. A budding young artist in her youth, she longed to study in Paris but with the world engulfed in the Second World War and with it France under German occupation her dream was unrealistic. Settling instead on America, with hopes of making it to Paris once the War ended, a sympathetic American official arranged passage for her and her entourage (an arranged husband to be and two male chaperones) aboard an American warship. Eventually Farmanfarmaian and her companions made their way to New York City so she could pursue her education and make inroads into the city’s vibrant art circles where she would rub elbows with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. With considerable reluctance she married her first husband, but didn’t let that stop her from taking advantage of all the amazing things New York had to offer an aspiring young artist. After a series of freelance gigs doing fashion illustration she landed a position with the department store Bonwit Teller, where she worked with a shy young illustrator by the name of Andy Warhol. 

After extricating herself from what had become a dead-end marriage a few years later she remarried, this time to a fellow Iranian who’d been attending graduate school in New York. Her new husband’s career would take her back to Iran where the two of them lived for 20 years, along with their children. While visiting family in New York the Ayatollah and his goons seized power and fearing they’d face imprisonment or worse by returning they opted to remain in the United States. Years later, after the death of her second husband she made several trips back to Iran where she eventually settled for good before passing away in 2019.

Farmanfarmaian was a remarkable individual. An accomplished painter and illustrator she blended traditional Persian styles with contemporary Western and was recognized world wide for her work with mosaics and mirrors. Like some real life Forest Gump she met a number of famous personalities over the course of her lifetime. As a young woman in Iran she played Twister with the Shah and his retinue. Later in life, Salvador Dalí attended one her openings in New York and during the same visit to the United States Senator Ted Kennedy and his then wife Joan hosted a reception for her in Washington DC. Even though they never met face to face Paul Newman was her next door neighbor and when it came time to sell her luxury condominium Warren Beatty, a buddy of Newman’s, dropped by to look at it. At an art installation in London she met Prince Charles, who asked her to teach at a college devoted to traditional Islamic arts and crafts he founded. She politely declined. “I’m honored, but I don’t think my English it up to it.” 

What A Mirror Garden might lack in locus it more than makes up for in charm and diversion. Think of it as a pleasant road trip filled with so many entertaining side excursions by the time you reach your intended destination you’re almost disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

Back in 2011 I shared my thoughts on Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I loved how she took me inside the long-vanished world of Old Cairo, a diverse and enchanting universe where a tapestry of cultures and religions existed side by side creating a place that was both European and Middle Eastern. For a book that didn’t make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit must have made a lasting impression on me. I say that because when I recently stumbled across a series of podcasts produced by Tablet magazine and saw one featuring an interview with Lagnado I immediately listed to it. I was delighted to learn she’d written a follow-up book called The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn which focused on the life of her mother. A few weeks later I borrowed an ebook of The Arrogant Years through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I’m pleased to say I found The Arrogant Years hard to put down, burning through it in a mere few days.

The Arrogant Years is the memoir of a family, as well as two very different worlds. The first of these long vanished worlds is that of old Cairo. Before General Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1954 Egypt was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians easily coexisted. (For another great look at this forgotten time I can’t recommend enough Andre Aciman’s 1994 memoir Out of Egypt.) In a society that saw itself as more Levantine than Arab, conversant in French and culturally and intellectually akin to Europe Lagnado wistfully writes “it was possible to be Jewish and a pasha … Jewish and an aristocrat, Jewish and a friend to ministers and kings.” Living in such a cosmopolitan capital, it’s little wonder her mother, a young woman as beautiful as she was intelligent, would catch the eye of the Pasha’s wife. Knowing a gifted bibliophile when she saw one, she hired the gifted teen to oversee her husband’s massive library. (Perhaps the perfect role for someone who’d read the collected works of Proust in the original French by the age of 15.) Later, she’d catch another’s eye, that of a dashing Jewish boulevardier, who, despite being over two decades her senior proposed marriage after a whirlwind courtship.

The second of these vanished worlds is mid-century America, specifically the provincial and segregated Jewish communities of New York City. Many synagogues were ethnically segregated, with North African and Middle Eastern Jews (many recent arrivals like Lagnado’s family) confined to one synagogue while those from Eastern Europe electing to worship in those of their own. Some synagogues, like the one favored by the Lagnados took a more traditional approach to worship by strictly segregating men and women, much to the displeasure of the young Lucette. Inspired by Emma Peel from the sixties British adventure TV series The Avengers she believed it was her heroic duty to overcome this injustice by slowly inching her chair week after week into the mens’ section. Keeping in mind the old-world sensitivities prevalent in her congregation one can only assume her modest fight for gender equality didn’t go exactly as she’d hoped.

While the Lagnados might have lived a charmed life in pre-Nasserite Egypt, in America things weren’t so easy. Her father never regained his stature as a wildly successful man about town. Her mother, forced to give up her dream job as the Pasha’s librarian, ultimately found a somewhat similar but perhaps not as glamorous job working for the Brooklyn Public Library. Lastly, if adjusting to life in America wasn’t tough enough, while in high school Lucette had win a life or death battle with cancer.

The Arrogant Years reminds me of other great memoirs I’ve read over the last several years like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Memoirs like these might not get as much hype as say Tara Westover’s Educated but because they’re so well written and tell such amazing and unique stories need to be appreciated more. Consider The Arrogant Years more than a worthy follow-up to The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.