Category Archives: Islam

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

Reading Afghanistan: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

I was no stranger to The Places in Between, or its author Rory Stewart when I decided to grab a copy from my public library. You see, years ago, a dear friend of mine after returning from a shopping trip to Powell’s Books informed me she’d bought a copy and asked if I’d heard of it. (At the time I’d hadn’t. But I was vaguely familiar with one of his other books, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.) As for Rory Stewart, I was introduced to his writing when I read the foreword he wrote to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Since I thought it was one of the best  forwards I’d ever read, I welcomed any opportunity to read more of Stewart’s stuff. Needless to say, when a copy of The Places in Between came available, I grabbed a copy.

You gotta admire a guy like Stewart. Mere months after the US has toppled the Taliban, he arrives in Afghanistan. Alone and in the middle of winter, this fearless (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) Scotsman sets out to walk across the country, from Herat to Kabul. The locals think he’s either insane, or worse some sort of spy. At the start of his trek, he’s  confronted by several  “government” agents, probably with Iranian connections. After explaining his intended mission, one of his interrogators responds incredulously  “there are no tourists.” Reminding him it’s winter and the high mountain passes are covered with tons of snow he adds “you will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Undeterred, Stewart proceeds to hike across north-central Afghanistan usually accompanied by a few Afghans. But always on foot. And always at the mercy of the hostile elements, both natural and human.

Reading The Places in Between you learn quickly Afghanistan is one hell of a rough place. Think of it as wall to wall grinding poverty. There’s no infrastructure worth speaking of and thanks to the country’s mountainous terrain most population centers are terribly isolated and thus insulated from the reach of any central government. Instead warlords and chieftains rule individual pieces of the country. Theses are the men Stewart must win over if he’s going to make it across Afghanistan alive.

My only knock on The Places in Between is a slight oneStewart’s habit of including so many passages of medieval travelogue might have gone a bit too far. But alas my complaint is a minor one, and should not defer anyone from reading this very good piece of travel writing.

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Filed under Afghanistan, History, Islam

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Memoir

Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Islam, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic StateAfter spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.

Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.

According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.

But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.

What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa