Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

windThe Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.

Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.

Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it.  And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.

Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi brings us a deliciously complex domestic drama. Set in contemporary Iran, A Separation explores the dissolution of a marriage against the backdrop of a mystery.

Simin is seeking a divorce from her husband Nader because he refuses to leave Iran with her. Nader also won’t allow Simin to take their daughter Termeh out of the country. Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. A judge refuses to grant the divorce, and Simin immediately packs up and leaves for her mother’s house. Termeh decides to stay with her father Nader. Simin’s absence from the home leaves Nader with no choice but to hire a daily caretaker for his father for the hours when he, Nader, is away at work. Nader hires Razieh, a financially-strapped married woman with a young daughter and a child on the way. Nader comes home from work one day to discover Razieh gone and his father on the bedroom floor, his wrist tied to his bed. Additionally, some money is missing from a drawer, and Nader believes that Razieh has taken it. When Razieh returns to Nader’s home, tensions erupt and a physical encounter results in Razieh accusing Nader of a crime against her.

So did he or didn’t he commit the crime Razieh accuses him of? In the ensuing legal drama, the characters struggle with questions of morality, informed by societal dictates of religious and gender roles, and what it means to tell the truth. A Separation prompts us to ask: In desperate circumstances, when our backs are up against the proverbial wall, are we more likely to transgress our moral and ethical boundaries?

American viewers unfamiliar with the Iranian justice system will undoubtedly make some interesting comparisons between the American justice system and the Iranian system of justice as depicted in A Separation. Lawyers are non-existent in the film as the accuser, the accused, and witnesses battle it out with each other in front of a judge.

Simply put, A Separation is an extraordinary film, one of the best films I have ever seen. The top-rate performances alone make the film worth viewing. Particular stand-outs include Peyman Moadi as Nader; Sareh Bayat as Razieh; and Kimia Hosseini, who steals every scene she is in, as Somayeh, Razieh’s inquisitive, mischievous, and adorable daughter.

Check the WRL Catalog for A Separation

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InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

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This book breaks my heart.  What child hasn’t felt shaken upon discovering that their faith in something that they had perceived as true and perfect is perceived by many as ridiculous and foolish?  Hayat, at twelve, has that purity.  He is sincerely trying to achieve faithfulness to Allah and to memorize the Qur’an on his own without formal training.  At the same time, he is a very human boy, noticing his sexual awakening without being able to label it.  The poor innocent is trapped in a hypocritical world with no trustworthy allies in his sight.

American Dervish is a coming-of-age novel that would make a good book-club choice because it easily triggers individuals to contemplate their personal journeys of spiritual faith as well as the cultural and societal pressures of growing up in America.  Regardless of one’s religious or ethnic background, many grow up doing as they are told, imitating what is modeled for them. Eventually, if free enough to do so, listening to their hearts and figuring out what choices to make upon entering adulthood.  Hayat is not alone in feeling alien among his parents and other authority figures.

I loved this book and believe that it would appeal to many types of readers.

Check the WRL catalog for American Dervish.


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The time has come to forever mark New York’s grief and loss from the September 11 terrorist attacks.  5000 blind submissions, all trace of the artist’s identity removed, have been sorted through by a jury of political appointees, academics, artists, and a representative of the families.  The field is winnowed down to two entries – one, a ten-story high black boulder thrusting up from the ground, with the names of the dead engraved up and down its sides.  The other, a walled garden divided symmetrically by canals, with living trees interspersed with steel trees sculpted from Twin Towers’ beams, and the names of the dead inscribed on the walls.  After debate and lobbying, the jury selects the garden, which was designed by…

Mohammed Khan.

Or, as the governor’s representative says, “Jesus f—–g Christ!  It’s a g—–n Muslim!” (This is a family blog.)

The selection is supposed to be confidential, but it’s no time before second-rate reporter Alyssa Spiers gets her scoop on the front pages of the tabloid New York Post and all hell breaks loose.  Suddenly the memorial is the sole property of the understandably angry families.  Or a cause celebre for liberals rejecting knee-jerk hatred.  Or the target of right-wing rabblerousers who proclaim it only lacking 72 virgins to make it a complete Islamic paradise for victorious terrorists.  A chance for Muslim activists to reach a broader audience.  A headache for the committee chair.  A political liability.

A personal and professional triumph for its creator, who demands recognition for his achievement without any need to defend his heritage or his design.

Mo Khan considers himself a plain vanilla American—born to non-religious parents who immigrated from India, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, trained as an architect, promoted for his skill.  No different from any other ambitious single-minded young man.  Now he finds himself treated as a stranger in his own country, interrogated by the FBI on his first post-9/11 flight, his career derailed, and now his breakthrough achievement threatened.  Mo now draws the line at sacrificing his vision, and the irresistible force of public opinion meets the immovable force of a proud man.

Amy Waldman does a terrific job exploring the needs and sensitivities of all the people with a personal stake in this controversy.  Some are confused, unable to distinguish between their sorrow and their anger.  Others are struggling with the balance between doing what is right and doing what is realistic.  Still others cannot see a reason for the collective emotions, insisting on keeping the memory of their own loved one independent of the memorial’s politics.

If the premise of The Submission sounds familiar, you may remember Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.  You may remember the hoo-hah over the Park51 project. (Waldman’s work on the book preceded that episode, and could even have been the blueprint for how it played out.)  You may even know that the real memorial is not without controversy.  As Waldman shows in a very effective epilogue, Americans tend not to hold grudges, even when our social progress is made in fits and starts.   If only there was a way to speed up the process.

Check the WRL catalog for The Submission

The Submission is also available as a Gab Bag.


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Humor is hard to do.  It probably ties with horror as the hardest type of story to develop and sustain through the end of the book.  Thankfully, both God and amanuensis David Javerbaum, a veteran of The Daily Show, are able to pull it off.  For one thing, God is aware (as one would expect from an omni-omni being) of his own sense of humor, although he occasionally suspects that it may border on the sociopathic.

So now we have, from his own lips, the truth of the stories collected in the Book that has the highest sales in the history of the world, even though the royalties don’t quite match the revenues.  We learn the truth about Creation – yes, it was Adam and Steve – the zing that’s going to greet new arrivals at the Golden Throne, and the greatest Broadway show of all time.  And hey, God does have favorite sports figures, with drastic repercussions for The Second Coming.

In the midst of this tell-all confession, God opens up about his relationship with his children.  Yes, plural.  Jesus is the middle child.  His older brother Zach is nicknamed The Holy Ghost for his favorite trick, sneaking up his brother and yelling, “Boo!”  His younger sister is Kathy, whose envy of Jesus’ sacrifice led her to beg her Father to allow her to do the same.  (You’ll have to read the Book to find out how they accomplished it.)  But Jesus is not only His favorite, he’s the only one who can overcome His Father with The Look.

The big issue, though, is the one that is fast approaching.  Although they don’t buy into Him, God is really impressed with the vigor with which the Mayans worship, so He’s decided to go with their calendar.  Humanity: October 28, 4004 BCDecember 21, 2012.  RIP.  And just to prove that he’s not fooling around, he’s given us day-by-day warning signs.  (My favorite is August 11 – “Reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg declare independence from management, asserting their inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and employee discounts at Busch Gardens”.  Since CW employees already have discounts, we can check that one off as already accomplished.)

OK, so you’re not supposed to take it seriously.  There’s no doubt about that, even though God takes pains to tell us on several occasions.  The Last Testament is a parody that explores the gap between people’s interpretation of the Bible, and their actual knowledge of the Book, interpreted through the lens of a writer familiar with history, theology, exegesis, psychology, and current events.  And if you decide to take it any other way, check out Againesis 19:4.  With tongue firmly in cheek, David Javerbaum has delivered a funny book that succeeds in making the reader look at the world from a new angle.  And that’s why humor is hard to do.

Check the WRL catalog for The Last Testament


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In the flap over the Park51/Cordoba House building project, most Americans continue to assume that the Muslim world is a single entity, a monolith stretching from Israel to Indonesia with a single opinion given to them by Osama bin Laden.  In his meticulous reconstruction of the history of al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright also manages to explore the deep fissures that divide Muslims, so that The Looming Tower ought to be the starting place for anyone who genuinely wants to understand why the Cordoba House project effectively has nothing to do with September 11.

According to Wright, the attacks on the World Trade Center (including the 1993 truck bomb that killed six people) had their origins in the travels of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who critically observed U.S. culture and decided that it must be overcome by a militant Islamic revolution.  But his initial target wasn’t the West—it was the secular and even corrupt governments of the Muslim world, which he thought must be brought down in order to achieve his ideal of a monolithic Islam.

From there, Wright follows a chain of events link by link as an Islamic movement  splits into ever-diminishing elements and one becomes increasingly radical, even repugnant to other Muslims. Finally, fewer than 100 men are left in the movement they begin to call al Qaeda.  Under the dual influence of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (and Wright makes a convincing case that bin Laden is a figurehead) members of al Qaeda were able to recruit and train other radicals to carry out suicide attacks on Western targets.  One of those recruits was Mohammed Atta, the supposed ringleader of the September 11 attacks.  (My only real criticism of the book is that Wright attributes Atta’s hatred to a repressed sexuality, even hinting that Atta was homosexual.  It seems like a good example of what many Muslims perceive as a Western obsession with sex, and is almost a too superficial analysis.)

At the same time, Wright follows a parallel timeline as a handful of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents pick up al Qaeda’s trail.  The most prominent of these, FBI agent John O’Neill,was unable to convince his peers and superiors that a threat existed, and so got only minimal resources to investigate al Qaeda even as the group began achieving their signature multiple attacks against what they saw as Western targets.

Those chapters are perhaps the most frustrating—in hindsight it is easy for the reader to criticize Janet Reno, George Tenet, Louis Freeh, and the Bush administration for not paying attention to the gathering signs of an unprecedented terrorist attack.  John O’Neill becomes the story’s tragic hero—the very man who knew the most about al Qaeda was a rogue, however likeable, with a penchant for making small but crucial mistakes that cost him his credibility with both the FBI and CIA.  (For more about O’Neill, the excellent Frontline documentary “The Man Who Knew” is well worth watching.)

Wright’s rigorous history takes on an air of urgency as the story approaches the infamous day.  It is left to the reader to supply the foreshadowing:  Wright doesn’t have to.  Instead, he capably follows the theological and political goals of those few Islamists who have carried their hatred of the West to its violent extreme.  But he also shows that the religion and culture of Islam can be so fractured and sometimes fratricidal that sensible people need to be informed before making pronouncements against 1.5 billion people.  With any luck, books like The Looming Tower will have more impact on both policy and public understanding.

Check the WRL catalog for The Looming Tower

Follow-up: added May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden was killed May 1 by a team of Navy SEALs and CIA operatives after an 8-month investigation that turned him up in a compound close to the Pakistani military academy and a major Pakistani military base.  His presumed successor is Ayman al-Zawahiri, and as Lawrence Wright points out in The Looming Tower, al-Zawahiri may be both the philosophical and strategic mastermind behind al-Qaeda.  If bin Laden was only a figurehead, his death may not have the impact on the movement that we hope.


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It’s an old and familiar story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.  Except in Ali and Nino, getting the girl back involves committing murder, the boy and girl struggle with their differences, and they do not live happily ever after.

Often called the national novel of Azerbaijan, Ali and Nino explores the extraordinary conflicts that plague this country sitting astride the border between the Christian West and Muslim East.  The influences of traffic between those regions gives Azeri culture a rich, sometimes volatile, mixture.  When combined with Azerbaijan’s oil resources and the heat of nationalism that fueled World War I, that mixture explodes.  Unfortunately, two young lovers are caught in the destruction.

Ali Shirvanshir, a romantic young man from a wealthy and influential Persian family, is educated in a Czarist academy which introduces him to the technological and intellectual advantages of Western culture.  Early in the book, though, he decides that his heart is pulled to the spiritual and physical purity of his Islamic heritage.  His attraction to Nino Kipiani, a beautiful and wealthy Christian girl from a Georgian family, disturbs him – he loves her and wants to marry her, but finds her (relatively) liberated life both shocking and exhilarating.

When they finally are married (after treachery and violence interrupt their courtship), they try living in Tehran among traditional Muslims, but Nino resents the veil and harem, and is upset when she witnesses Ali in the throes of a religious trance.  They return to Baku on the cusp of World War I, but Ali’s allegiance is to Azerbaijan not Russia, so he refuses to join the Czar’s army.  In the aftermath of the Revolution, he helps to form the independent country of Azerbaijan, and even represents its government, along with Nino, to the Western powers.  But when the Red Army invades, Ali sends Nino to Paris to save her and their unborn child.  Knowing that he can be no more happy in Paris than she was in Tehran, and wanting to defend his homeland, Ali stays behind in a desperate and futile attempt to resist the invasion.

There are many remarkable things about this book, the first of which is its timeliness.  Written in 1937, it opens a window onto a part of the world most Americans only became aware of in 2001.  Given that the same dynamics of Russian expansionism drive the ongoing Chechen war, that the Sunni/Shi’ite division Ali details forms an undercurrent to conflicts in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and that oil politics still drive Western interests in the region, author Kurban Said unwittingly demonstrates that short-term thinking should not drive American involvement in the region.  As a brief introduction to current affairs, it is both revealing and painless.

The second remarkable aspect is the story of the book’s authorship, which is contested even today.  Kurban Said was a pen name, probably for Lev Nussinbaum, the son of a Jewish merchant in Azerbaijan, or (less likely) for Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, a popular Azeri writer.  The copyright was held by Baroness Elfriede von Ehrenfels, and it was she who collected royalties on European sales.  Tom Reiss, whose New Yorker article on Said led to a full-length book called The Orientalist, follows Lev Nussinbaum’s life as he created one identity after another in a quest for recognition.  A biographer of both Stalin and Mussolini, Nussinbaum shed names and histories like old clothes, and for a time was celebrated in Germany’s highest social circles as a traveler from the exotic East.  He and the Baroness may have created the Said identity to collect royalties, which as a Jew in Germany he could not.  Reiss writes that national policies requiring identity cards and documented family histories may have caught up with Nussinbaum, leaving him stranded in a small Italian town without access to the money the Baroness collected from sales of Ali and Nino.  He died in 1942.

Ali and Nino is not only a compelling love story and window into the minds of cross-cultural travelers, it contains passages of considerable beauty and moments of humor that stay with the reader.  Whoever the real Kurban Said was, he could write.

Check the WRL catalog for Ali and Nino

Check for the Gab Bag copy of Ali and Nino

Check for The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss

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Crime fiction has always been popular here at the library, and amongst the general public. Lately, some of the best crime novels being written are coming from writers outside the U.S. and are set in locales across the globe. The international settings for these stories add another element to the appeal, opening up new worlds for the reader. This week, we will take a quick spin around the world through crime fiction.

First up is the complex and multi-layered My Name is Red by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. The novel begins with a soliloquy from a dead man, and follows that up with a chapter narrated by a dog, and then a first-person narrative by the murderer. Pamuk’s bravura opening draws you in, and he then proceeds to build an enticing tale that mixes religion, art, and murder in the court of the Sultan in 16th-century Istanbul. While the story alone makes the book worth reading for its twisting plot and fascinating characters, Pamuk’s use of language is equally deft, and some of the passages in the book are breathtakingly beautiful.

Also noteworthy is the attention that Pamuk pays to the details of life in 16th-century Turkey. Whether it is the Sultan’s court or the studios of the miniaturists who are illustrating manuscripts for the Sultan and his nobles, Pamuk takes the reader deep into new worlds. Although there is a compelling mystery at the heart of the tale, My Name is Red is also a fascinating exploration of the role of art and the artist in society. It is particularly intriguing to see these questions explored in an Islamic culture. The questions that Pamuk raises are as pertinent to today’s society as to that of Turkey in the 1500s.

So, try Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and if you like his lyrical style and his twisting plots he has several other tales to beguile you.

Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Red

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persepolis.jpgCommon knowledge suggests that men tend to read nonfiction and that women tend to read fiction. Is this really true? Beats me– but I know this much for sure: There are a lot of women who like to read nonfiction. Some nonfiction titles have appeal that transcends sex or gender (think John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man, or Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods), but this week I want to draw attention to five Women’s Nonfiction books– that is, books written for, or about, women.

Gentlemen, stay with me. You may find yourself surprised at how much you enjoy certain Women’s Nonfiction books. Give one a try. (It’s only fair; look how many women read and enjoyed Seabiscuit. If we can handle a book about horse racing, you can bring yourself to try a book written for women.)

Let’s start the week with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the surprise hit from 2003 that may or may not be coming to a theater near you. Satrapi’s memoir recalls her childhood in Iran, where she was a happy child with a doting family, blissfully unaware of the ugly side of life until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

If your knowledge of the Islamic Revolution is vague, you’re not alone. I didn’t even know there was an Islamic Revolution in 1979, not till I read this book. The history lesson alone makes this a worthwhile read, along with the insight into a culture that is vastly different from ours. (Are you listening, fans of The Kite Runner?)

Because of its many different appeals– Satrapi’s engaging tone, the fine characterizations, the exquisitely rendered settings, the cultural insights– this is first graphic novel I recommend to people who think they don’t like graphic novels. The crisp black-and-white drawings are lovely, and the ten-year-old Marjane is a delightful protagonist. Follow with the sequel, Persepolis II.

Check the WRL catalog for Persepolis and Persepolis 2.

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