Tag Archives: Palestine

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


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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.



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Living History

We lived history this week. The Palestinian Authority, precursor to a government of Palestine, requested membership in the United Nations.  We may have glanced at it in the papers, perhaps saw it as a Yahoo News panel, or listenedto  or watched some commentary or interviews about it. What I wonder is how many of us outside of Israel and the West Bank understood its significance? President Abbas’s address to the General Assembly hasn’t been the only history we lived this week, this year, or even this decade. But outside of 9/11 and perhaps the election of Barack Obama as President, events don’t seem to stick to the ribs anymore.

What hath cable news and the Internet wrought?  Are we exposed to too much news (and not such newsworthy reporting) too often and too rapidly?  Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel seem to think so. In Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Kovach and Rosenstiel introduce us to the concept that we need to become our own editors if we are to make sense of the flood of news and information available to us today. In their words:

The real information gap in the 21st century is not who has access to the Internet and who does not. It is the gap between people who have the skills to create knowledge and those who are simply in a process of affirming preconceptions without growing and learning.

By its very expansiveness and pace, both the news and information in general readily overwhelm us. It isn’t necessarily numbing, but I find myself engaging in information triage everyday, so I don’t become info-numbed. Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, has written that his research indicates our brains are just not “hardwired” enough to absorb and process the quantity of information they’re subject too. His work, The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory provides (very academically) the data and research used to reach that conclusion and some steps that can be taken to improve memory performance in light of both the volume of information we seek to assimilate, and age.

Going back to my premise about the news, coupled with absorbing it all—or not—is the additional task of prioritizing it. In the same week that Abu Mazen spoke to the UN, the US Congress failed to pass another interim spending bill, Moammar Quaddafi was or wasn’t in exile, nine Republican presidential hopefuls debated in Florida (Orlando no less, but I won’t go there,) and Overdrive announced that Kindle compatible e-books would now be available at public libraries. How do you rank these in importance and impact?

Finally, there is the crossover effect into the worlds of work and study, perhaps even into family life.  If it’s hard to assimilate it all, how much harder is it to organize and make sense of it, in order to make decisions?  That itself is a stand-alone subject. For our sakes, we need to be able to distinguish what is important from the 2nd and 3rd tier news/information without self-imploding or excessive hair pulling.

— Richard

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