Memoirs of the Middle East: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

In keeping with my recent trend of reading borrowed books I’d previously ignored I took another stab at Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran. I’ve been wanting to read it because I love Iranian memoirs and because its author lives in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon. After slow start I finished it a few days ago. While it won’t go down as one of my favorite Iranian memoirs it’s still a pretty good read.

With his father a respected air force general Minu-Sepehr grew up in a household catered by servants and witnessed an endless parade of lower echelon soldiers ready to serve his father’s every whim. Revered as the general’s son he was treated with a degree of deference usually reserved towards minor royalty. Fortunately, for those around him this privileged status, even combined with his father’s doting on him didn’t turn the young Minu-Sepehr into a spoiled brat.

Ensconced on an air force base hundreds of miles from the capital Tehran and safe within his family’s protective cocoon turmoil, trouble is brewing  fueled by years of governmental misrule, political oppression and religious strife. Once unleashed, these forces would eventually lead to the chaotic overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, and its eventual replacement by a ruthless theocracy. Minu-Sepehr’s account of the Iranian Revolution unfolds gradually, as its seen through the eyes of a child and filtered through the protective lenses of his parents and members of his household. Writing as an adult decades later, his recollection of events resembles a slowly at first, then all at once Hemingwayesque approach told with a nuanced voice that comes with age.

We Heard the Heavens Then reminded me how much I enjoy memoirs by Iranians, as well as other writers from the Middle East. I’m hoping in 2023 I’ll be reading  more of these and when I do, you’ll see them featured on this blog.

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry

Last year in one of my Nonfiction November posts I featured a selection of books about the Middle Ages. One of which was Charles Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: A Short History. It’s been a favorite of mine for decades thanks to its straightforward approach and readable style. But my most lasting takeaway from this excellent book is the author’s firm denial a European-wide “Dark Ages” ruled the continent for a thousand years. The reality, Warren Hollister argued is a bit more complex. Over that long length of time some parts of Europe advanced economically and intellectually while others might have stagnated or even regressed. In the decade since I read Medieval Europe the more I’ve read about this period of history the more Warren Hollister’s claim rings true. 

Looking for another decent book on the Middle Ages I recently borrowed a Kindle edition of Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s late 2021 book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. They subscribe to a similar viewpoint. Europe did not spend a thousand years as some benighted peninsula at the extreme end of Eurasia, cut-off economically, culturally and intellectually from the rest of the world. Instead it was a vibrant, dynamic and well-connected continent, enriched mightily by even its most distant neighbors.

Traditionally, many felt the Dark Ages began with the Fall of Rome. As successive waves of barbarian hordes overran the Italian peninsula high culture came to an end. In reality, the Empire’s borders had been growing increasingly porous over the last several hundred years.  Intermarriages involving Roman elites and their foreign counterparts were becoming commonplace. More and more foreign-born soldiers were rising up the ranks of an increasingly polyglot Roman army, with some even becoming generals. And when these invading groups did takeover, they adopted Roman customs and language and quickly converted to Christianity. (Or in the case of the Goths ditched Arianism for the era’s more orthodox Christianity.) Lastly, regardless of who happened to be running the show in Rome the Byzantines still saw themselves as Romans. Carrying on the legacy of Rome they soldiered on until their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks in the mid 15th century. 

Gabriele and Perry also challenge the notion of Europe’s distinctness vis-à-vis its Islamic neighbors. Both Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism aren’t just monotheistic religions. There are Abrahamic faiths, which comparatively speaking, share more similarities than differences. While Christian armies frequently fought Muslim armies during the Crusades and the Reconquista from time to time they fought as allies, both in the Middle East and Iberia. Intellectually, the writings of Islamic luminaries Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd, (Averroes) together with their Jewish counterpart Maimonides profoundly influenced European thought, especially the theology of Thomas Aquinas. 

After the Mongols’ expansive conquests a well-maintained conduit was established across Eurasia, facilitating the transfer of goods and ideas between Europe and the Far East. Chinese silks flowed west, Catholic missionaries traveled east and a guy named Marco Polo captivated Europe with stories of his travels. 

The Bright Ages, much like the above mentioned Medieval Europe is a straightforward, readable and fresh look at Europe’s Dark Ages which in reality, probably wasn’t all that dark. 

Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, popped into the library for just a few moments and walked out more books. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing another small stack. Three of these are books I borrowed in the past yet never read. Who knows, maybe this time I finally will.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s Blog

Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, dropped by the library to return a book. And walked out the door with four more. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing more reading material. Will I ever learn? No, of course not. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

Book Beginnings: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

For as long as I could remember, my father had been a general. Growing up in the air force, around armed forces, I had become adept at recognizing ranks. One look at someone’s uniform, at their silver stripes, bronze asters, or gold stars, and I could tell exactly where they stood, who obeyed whom.

Last week I featured Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s 2021 The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Before that it was Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.This week it’s Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran.   

Some of you might remember We Heard the Heavens Then is one of the books, along with The Bright Ages I grabbed recently from the public library. Some of you might even remember I borrowed this book once before only to return it unread. This time I’d really like to read it. (If for no other reason the author lives in my former hometown.) Here’s what Amazon has to say about the book.

We Heard the Heavens Then is a deeply moving story told from two vantage points: a boy growing up faster than any child should, observing and recoiling in the moment, and the adult who is dedicated to a measured assessment of the events that shaped him. In this tightly focused memoir, Aria Minu- Sepehr takes us back through his explosive youth, into the heart of the revolution when a boy’s hero, held up as the nation’s pride, became a hunted man.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)

The Early Years

Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look 

History: A Deeper Understanding 

Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad 

Developing a Post-Religious Worldview

The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding

East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations 

Corruptions of Power

Animals: Smarter Than You Think

That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.

Immigrant Stories: The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Rabih Alameddine’s 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope caught my eye back in June when I spotted a copy at the public library as part of its Pride Month display. Sucked in by its cool cover art, upon closer inspection I noticed it’s set on the Greek island of Lesbos. Even though I was all set to read James Angelos’s The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins to satisfy the Greece requirement for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I instead opted to give Alameddine’s novel a chance. After bringing it home I thought the author’s name looked familiar so I did some checking. Lo and behold he also wrote the short autobiographical piece “How to Bartend”, which was my favorite essay from The Best American Essays 2020. Eager to read more from Alameddine I dived into The Wrong End of the Telescope and was not disappointed.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Dr. Mina Simpson lived for decades in America. Aware Mina is a trained medial professional fluent in Arabic she’s recruited by her friend to help provide humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern refugees who’ve sought sanctuary on the Greek island of Lesbos. Fleeing the horrors of war and Islamic terror countless multitudes now find themselves interned in the island’s infamous Moria refugee camp, now subject to disease and neglect. Among the dislocated is Sumaiya, a Syrian mother in the throes of late-stage liver cancer. Asked by Sumaiya to keep her illness a secret Mina complies, and with her limited resources does all she can to make the stricken woman’s last days as pleasant as possible.

Spliced into this large-scale tragedy is Mina’s own life story, told through a series of flashbacks. Married to the same women for over 30 years, nevertheless she’s been ostracized by her family for decades thanks to their refusal to accept her sexuality. Only her brother fully embraces who she is and respects the painful transition she’s made along the way. Ironically, she’s assisted in her humanitarian efforts by a member of the Red Crescent, who happens to be a gay Palestinian with a working knowledge of Farsi he learned from his bisexual Israeli lover over the course of their adulterous affair. (A presumed Mossad agent specializing in Iranian operations.)

The Wrong End of the Telescope puts a human face on suffering, both on a grand and individual scale. At the same time it artfully contrasts the journeys we’re forced to undertake, be they across land and sea or from one manifestation of ourselves to another. Please consider this novel highly recommended.

Book Beginnings: True Believer by Kati Marton

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

How does an idealist turn into a willing participant in murder? How does such a person-who is neither poor, nor socially deprived-learn to crush those he loves for the sake of a cause, a promise, and an illusion?

Last week I featured the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. The week before it was the 2012 Kindle release of Lawrence Durrell’s 1960 travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island. This week it’s the 2016 biography True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Hungarian-American writer Kati Marton.

I’ve been wanting to read True Believer for the last five or six years. However, I had no idea until held a copy in my hands the author, Kati Marton also wrote The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. I thoroughly enjoyed her 2006 book and had I known she was the author of True Believer I would have read it a long time ago. After starting the book just this morning it’s shaping up to be a winner.

Instead of me blathering on, here’s what novel’s page on Amazon has to say:

This astonishing real-life spy thriller, filled with danger, misplaced loyalties, betrayal, treachery, and pure evil, with a plot twist worthy of John le Carré, is relevant today as a tale of fanaticism and the lengths it takes us to.

True Believer reveals the life of Noel Field, an American who betrayed his country and crushed his family. Field, once a well-meaning and privileged American, spied for Stalin during the 1930s and ’40s. Then, a pawn in Stalin’s sinister master strategy, Field was kidnapped and tortured by the KGB and forced to testify against his own Communist comrades.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I started and finished the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. Currently I’m still reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. With my nose buried in several books last week I managed to read just two articles. This week I’ll try harder and hopefully read more. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. Unfortunately for me, I have only two episodes left to watch. 

Everything else. Friday, instead of indulging in my weekly ritual of fine wine and conversation at my favorite local winery I drove up to Portland. After a quick trip to Powell’s Books I proceeded to my friends’ place for an evening of beers, fun and frivolity. Our wonderful hosts fired up the grill and put on the soccer game. After watching the home team come from behind to beat our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders a few of us stayed up past our bedtimes conversing on the porch. Saturday on my way home I hit a massive church yard sale and walked away with small stack of books, almost all of which were free. Among the treasures are Pulitzer-Prize winners American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.