Tag Archives: Israel

Armchair Travel: The Middle East

One great way to recover from your first half-marathon is to sit on the couch and catch up on all the wonderful books you’ve got checked out on your library card. Lately I’ve been dabbling in non-Western literature, and–with the help of this wonderful list from the Tacoma Public Library–familiarizing myself with the diverse range of fiction produced in the Middle East. Here are just a few of the titles I’m sampling this month.

dakhmehDakhmeh, Naveed Noori. Arash’s family fled to the United States when he was just a boy. As a man, he has returned to Iran against his family’s wishes, to try to understand his birthplace and its complex political problems. Aresh’s one-way ticket to Tehran buys him not only a consciousness-raising, but also a stint in prison, which the novel chronicles in a series of journal entries. The title–which roughly translates to “towers of silence”–implies that things will not go well for Arash, but, more importantly, for Iran at large either. A complex tale about a man trying to understand his heritage, but, possibly, too Westernized to fully grasp it.

Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur. Banned in Iran for its frank discussion of women’s sexual desire, Parsipur’s tale parsipurexplores the inner landscape of the feminine in the post-WWII period. Who is a woman without a man? Per Parsipur, she is a lover, a fighter, a creative being, and a creature seeking justice or vengeance (and sometimes both). Struggling to escape the narrow confines of their world, Parsipur’s women realize–frequently to their horror–that once you have liberated yourself, the landscape of freedom poses its own problematic challenges. Read it and find out why the author was jailed, and now lives in the U.S. as a political exile.

hillsofgodOn the Hills of God, Ibrahim Fawal. In the summer of 1947 Yousif’s two main goals in life are to become a lawyer after high school and win the heart of the beautiful Salwa. Completely unaware of the political chaos brewing around him, Yousif does not realize that by the summer of 1948, his life in Palestine–soon to become Israel–will be very different. Fawal paints a complex, layered portrait of a period in history the participants themselves have not been able to parse out peacefully, giving the reader a front-row seat at what everyday life must have been like at the time. What’s really striking here is the loving attention to detail: houses, food, and the landscape are described concretely, yet simply, pointing out the jarring contrast between the larger currents of history and the daily routines that, somehow, always go on.

The Liberated Bride, Abraham B. Yehoshua. Set in and around Haifa University in the mid-1990s, this novel explores Jewish and liberatedArab intellectual circles, and their uneasy relationship to each other. Professor Yohanan Rivlin can’t figure out why his son’s wife divorced him, and neither member of the former couple will explain, which makes him even more determined to find out. Meanwhile, Professor Rivlin’s brightest student, who has just recently gotten married herself, alternately irritates and intrigues him as they work together on an Algerian history project. A bittersweet comedy of manners, that explores our need to know the truth, even when we don’t really want to know the truth. And by the way, what is “truth” anyhow? Polite, but with bite.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih. A young man returns to Sudan after receiving a university education in England. When he arrives in his village, he meets and becomes obsessed with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, a recent newcomer to the town. Over time the narrator learns the full truth of Sa’eed’s disturbing life story, but will it serve as a cautionary tale or a road map to ruin? Compared favorably by some critics to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is a fascinating tale of colonialism and psychological horror.

I don’t know much about the Middle East, but these novels have me itching to pick up some decent history books. Fiction-wise, I’m also planning to devour the titles on the Muslim Journeys booklists the library staff has created as part of a grant project, which you can read more about here. Do you have any other recommendations? Have you read any of these, or other works from the Tacoma Public Library list? What parts of the world have you explored in fiction, and where should I go next?

–Leigh Anne

stamping her metaphorical passport


Filed under Uncategorized

Browse versus Recommendation, the Showdown

I have long been a vocal advocate for the browse. I like to get up there in the stacks and look around and just see what I find. I always find something good. I never went up to the stacks and came back empty handed. I may have returned with a book on the social life of crows when I went up there to find something on film, but that’s the beauty of it.

Recently though, I got a great example of how a good recommendation can be equally satisfying. It started with 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.

It’s a title that is hard to resist. I came across it in the stacks and raced through it in a few days. Joel Chasnoff’s story chronicles the ups and downs during his search for martial glory and meaning during his enlistment in the Israeli Defense Forces. What is it like serving in a foreign military and living as a new immigrant? With all the potential themes to address, nationalism and patriotism, identity and Judaism, it seems like the book is a can’t miss, especially when some of it takes place along a tense border with Lebanon.  After reading the book I felt I knew Israeli society a smidge better than when I started. And I enjoyed the ride, following Chasnoff along the ups and downs, and more downs, and down again, of his story. As a former soldier myself, some of his story really resonated, while other parts were somewhat wince inducing. But above all, Chasnoff’s honesty will earn a reader’s respect.

I was talking the book over with a librarian and he hit me with this recommendation, Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen Soldier in Israel, by Haim Watzman. The book is a tour de force. I have never used the phrase tour de force, and I don’t plan on making it a habit, but there are few ways to succinctly describe this book’s intense ability to draw the reader into Haim Watzman’s world.  The narrative switches seamlessly through the engrossing details of the daily routine of reservist soldiers on deployments through Watzman’s own complex reflections on the policies and politics behind his adopted country’s actions in the occupied territories.  Watzman doesn’t agree with everything he has to see or do, but neither does he completely agree with his country’s critics. Wherever you stand on these complex issues, you will respect Watzman’s honesty and his poignant thoughtfulness. Personally, it brought home to me how thoroughly human these problems are. Whatever governments and groups may do or say, on the ground real people are dealing with it, on both sides. After reading Watzman’s book I feel much better introduced to the complexities of life in Israel. The book is a must read.

A book found on a browsing expedition leads to a conversation which leads to an incredible recommendation.  What’s going to be next? Will browsing get completely upstaged? I hope not. But I certainly do have a healthy appreciation for the recommendation.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Foot N’ Mouth, or 12 years of Social Networking

I’ve had some very interesting experiences over the last few years with what we’ve come to call social networking.  I got to thinking about what for me has been over 10 years of it, once known in the library world as Web 2.0, and in other places as “being on the Internet.”

My experiences have been overwhelmingly constructive; they’ve brought me closer to my nephews and nieces, allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends in the UK, Israel and around the U.S., and in those implausible serendipitous episodes, I’ve been able to reconnect with friends through the most unlikely encounters.  I’ve also had my share of  “I didn’t write that, did I?” moments, one just this past week — but they have been far and few between . . . unless I didn’t want them to be.  This accumulated wisdom has also allowed me to keep pace with my daughter (a 14 year old), though frankly I’d rather be one step ahead of her.

Outside of discussion groups back when there wasn’t a web interface (yes, we used to have to read orange or green text with a black screen, and you needed to know some rudimentary DOS or Unix to navigate around a DEC VAX machine), real time exchanges didn’t take off until the advent of the web-based interface unless you were an intrepid IRC user.  Around 1999 I was a regular reader and contributor to a site that still exists, www.triumphspitfire.com for those of us building, rebuilding or just interested in the Triumph GT6 or Spitfire roadsters.  I spent 18 months rebuilding my Spit, something I couldn’t have done successfully without the give and take of that website and board. It was a gratifying moment when I crossed the line from being the tutored to being the tutor.

Around six years ago I began dabbling in YouTube, even using it several times as a reference tool for someone asking about the Beatles (specifically the first concert at Shea Stadium.)  In seeing what was out there I made some comments about a clip of an Israeli performer, specifically mentioning where I used to live – Kibbutz Yahel.  A few weeks later someone responded to my comment asking how I knew this place, Yahel.  We danced around each other for 1-2 messages; I think we each thought the other was a Nigerian Minister of Banking with a check for us to deposit.  Once we got past that, it turned out we knew each other very well and had even been part of a midnight group skinny-dipping conspiracy 28 years ago.  Steve and I were casual acquaintances, I know his wife, but more importantly,  I was able to ask him about someone who had been my best friend and neighbor for 6 years until he moved to Holland (Dutch wife, child with CF, etc.).  Because of a comment on YouTube I was able to reconnect with my friend Itzik who had since moved back to Israel.

Facebook  probably doesn’t need an explanation for most of you, but I have to take a moment to note that it has revolutionized communication.  I was a reluctant entrant to FB; I looked askance at my 20 something nephews with 286 “Friends”.  Their father, my older brother, used to ask them “how many of your “friends” will loan you something to cover the rent, or take you to the airport at 3:00 in the morning?”  Since then we’ve both come to appreciate its potential and the connections / re-connections we’ve made.  Maybe it’s a boomer thing, because the responses have been almost universal among those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s.  Some of it is escapism, we want our Rob and Laura Petrie TV lives back, even if we never lived them, or possibly it’s because we’re one of the last vestiges of a time when you went outside to play without playdates and didn’t come home until dinnertime.  I’ve also learned some valuable lessons about really thinking before you write, and the power of words.

When I first joined FB I was unaware or unsure of what a Wall was, and who saw what when I posted.  Someone asked me about a particular person we’d all known and if I was friends with him.  This was someone whose existence I marginally tolerated when we lived on Kibbutz together, no way was I going to be his friend.  Of course I wrote something to that effect and immediately had someone else inform me that “you realize don’t you that blank-for-brains can see that?”  No, I didn’t, and that was my last faux-pas until last week.  In an ongoing discussion about growing up on Long Island when I did (about 2,000+ participants), someone asked about a judge who’d been forced to resign and went to prison.  I made a flip comment about him, nothing incorrect or slanderous (if the newspapers and court record are to be believed,) but nevertheless impolite.  His daughters, both participants in this group took great umbrage at what I wrote, along with what several others had to say.   One of the daughters took the wrong approach and aggressively protested dad’s innocence; that wasn’t going to fly.  The other daughter took a different approach, shaming us a little by asking if that was what the forum we were in was about; exclusion and other’s misfortune.  That worked, and it was a lesson learned, something I will take to heart when I post or comment.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized