A GOOD COUNTRY

LALEH KHADIVI

Laguna Beach, California, 2010. Reza Courdee, a fourteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In that instant, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza–now Rez–feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. His girlfiend Fatima describes it as “all that American-white-boy shit”.

When the Boston marathon bombs and things begin to change for Rez. He falls out with the bad boy surfers and in with a group of kids more awake to the world around them, who share his background, and whose ideas fill him with a very different sense of purpose. Fatima attends a mosque out of curiosity and afterwards decides to wear a headscarf. Rez is given a post-graduation surfing holiday in Bali by his father, and while he is there he stumbles into a modest neighbourhood mosque and muses: so this is Islam. Within a year, Reza and Fatima are naively making their way to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation rising from the ashes of the civil war. The novel charts the journey to radicalisation. A Good Country is expertly shaped, and persuasively investigates an important phenomenon of our times.

 

GUAPA

SALEEM HADDADguapa

“Guapa” encompasses a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during the turbulence of the Arab Spring. His path winds from his family’s upper-middle-class home, where his family is on the verge of discovering his secret relationship with another young man, to the city’s poverty-stricken suburbs, where the embers of revolution are catching fire, to the police stations where regime thugs brutalize and intimidate dissidents, to a lavish wedding in the city’s most exclusive hotel. Along the way, he is forced to reckon with the hidden forces that have driven both him and his country to a fever pitch of despair and frustration.

Told with simple elegance and wry humour, “Guapa” is both a universal story of the perils of adulthood and a deeply personal examination of culture and identity. Haddad writes like an Arab Tennessee Williams, fueled equally by rage and compassion as he explores the social, sexual and economic chasms that divide his characters from each other, and themselves.

THE DESERTER’S TALE: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq

JOSHUA KEY as told to LAWRENCE HILLdeserter's

Key thought joining the U.S. military was a way to escape the poverty of his youth and get a decent-paying, secure job, perhaps even an education, to support his growing family. In many ways, Key was an ideal recruit: he had a childhood fascination with guns, he was a bit of a fighter but still followed orders, and he was good with his hands. He even enjoyed boot camp where they were taught all Iraqis were terrorist, even the babies. In Iraq, Key took part in acts of cruel and vindictive violence. His squad’s nightly tasks become a routine of violence and the abuse of power: raiding civilian homes, brutalizing the inhabitants, destroying the contents, stealing the valuables and taking the men and boy five feet tall away, never to be seen again. Key does not know where these men, who were not arrested for any crime, were sent: perhaps to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. joshua keyThey never found any terrorists, caches of weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were ordered to do the same thing night after night. At first there was no resistance. Then gradually resistance began to build. Key commented that if a foreign power landed in the US and terrorized the citizens the same way there would be hell to pay.

“We claimed to be bringing democracy and good order to the people of Iraq, but all we brought were hate and destruction. The only thing gave to the people of Iraq was a reason to despise us–for generations to come.”

When home for a two week break Key realized he could not return. He was already suffering from PTSD. Eventually, he made it to Canada where he applied for asylum.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the only right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only and that is to the people of Iraq.”

lawrence-hill_584During the 60’s and 70’s Canada’s door were open to anti-war protestors. I hope that will happen again with our recent change of government. Canada benefited from the creative and entrepreneurial spirit those immigrants brought. One name that comes to mind is the Canadian author Robert Munsch.

THE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER

bluebetween_192_290SUSAN ABULHAWA

BLUE tells another important story: the story of the Palestinians. It traces the Baraka family as they are forced off their land and out of their ancestral village of Beit Daras during the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland when Israel was created in 1948. They relocate to the Gaza Strip. It tells the story of Israeli colonialism, when victim becomes victimizer. But much more it describes the Palistinian culture. When they celebrate with feast and dancing: “We find our own way to freedom. Zionist sons of Satan cannot imprison our joy, can they?” The women’s culture of cooking and gossiping is beautiful. Nazmiyeh is the matriarch, the center of a household of sisters, daughters, granddaughters, whose lives threaten to spin out of control with every personal crisis, military attack, or political landmine.

“Stories matter. We are composed of our stories. The human heart is made of the words we put in it. If someone ever says mean things to you, don’t let those words go into your heart, and be careful not to put mean words in other people’s hearts.”

“But I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

While reading this novel I frequently thought of the song My Personal Revenge. Jackson Browne singing a Jorge Caleron Poem.

My Personal Revenge

My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic
My personal revenge will be to show you
The kindness in the eyes of my people
Who have always fought relentlessly in battle
And been generous and firm in victory
My personal revenge will be to tell you good morning
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you
And when you who have applied your hands in torture
Are unable to look up at what surrounds you
My personal revenge will be to give you
These hands that once you so mistreated
But have failed to take away their tenderness
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
And underneath the skin of this town today
Red and black, it’s heart’s been scarred
Forevermore
You can listen to it on you tube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4NwJLHeYeM

LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE

narqaZARQA NAWAZ

Laughing is a hilarious memoir by the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie which was a hit tv show that ran for six seasons. It chronicles Nawaz’s own misadventures inside her community. When an Iman from Saudi Arabia came to her local mosque he insisted there be a barrier between the men and the women who were praying. A shower curtain was quickly hung but Zarqa and a few other women refused to be treated like second class muslims and would go in front of the curtain to pray with the men.  Wanting to be helpful Zarqa joined the DBWC — the Dead Body Washing Committee — at her Regina mosque. Attempting to heave a deceased woman onto her side so she could wash her back, Zarqa exclaimed, “Now we know where the term ‘dead weight’ comes from.” “Jokes will not be tolerated at this time,” responded Auntie Nadia. “I wasn’t joking, I was just commenting about how heavy the body is.” “We don’t comment about the body. Ever.” “Perhaps the DBWC isn’t the best place for you.” “But why?” “Because you say very inappropriate things during a very solemn occasion.” “I just have a bad habit of blurting out stuff that I’m thinking.” “And that’s exactly the kind of person we don’t need.”

Another riotous episode is when Zarqa is explaining to the construction worker why she needs to reach the sink from the toilet. She needs to be able to fill a teapot for washing. After the toilet paper comes washing.

When she first heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, she thought, “Please don’t let it be us.” But, of course, it was, and that evening she told her husband, “Life as we know it is over.” Other muslims had this same reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jian Gomeshi recounted that his father had the same reaction, “Please don’t let it be muslims.” This book helps us see muslims in a much different light. In Asia they have a saying, “Same, same but different.”

Read Laughing. You’ll laugh out loud.

COCKROACH

RAWI HAGEcockroach

Cock roach is an unusual novel full of magic realism and existentialism. The narrator survived a childhood in a war zone unnamed in the book but the author comes from Beirut. Now living in Montreal, he has been rescued from a failed suicide attempt and ordered to attend therapy sessions with an ineffectual female analyst. “I had attempted suicide out of a kind of curiosity, or maybe as a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light. I felt oppressed by it all. The question of existence consumed me.” He is confronted by the racism of his boss and others. “You know, we come to these countries for refuge and to find better lives, but it is these countries that made us leave our homes in the first place.” He envisions himself as a giant cockroach able to hide and slip into forbidden places. He breaks into people’s houses and moves among their possessions, crawling along their walls and their drains.  “Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.”

Cockroach begins strongly but the excellent fades in the second half. The writing is excellent. “I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts.”

THE NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

CHRIS BRAZIERhist2 history

The magazine New Internationalist publishes No-Nonsense guides on multiple topics. They are all brief, concise and easy to read. Brazier does an excellent job of summarizing the history of the world in 150 pages. And he covers the world’s history not just the western hemisphere’s.He has some interesting analysis I found this of particular interest: the Russian “revolution was highjacked by the ruthless dictator Stalin – blow from which the Left worldwide has still not recovered.”

It is a good quick read. It reminds me of

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn.

A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING

DAVE EGGERS

AKA: Waiting for the King

Alan Clay is a 54-year-old self-employed consultant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he’s come to try to redeem his fortune. Day after day Alan is driven, usually late, to a large white tent in the desert — part of the King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC (as in “cake”) — where three young colleagues sit around with laptops waiting to show a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, on behalf of Reliant, an American company that is “the largest I.T. supplier in the world.” Day after day, the king fails to arrive. No one can say when the King will arrive to see their presentation.  The Americans lie around, fret about the absence of Wi-Fi and kill time in the emptiness. The are adrift on a sea of sand. Desperate for something to happen, Alan lances a cyst on his neck with a crude knife — and later a needle — just to feel the blood flow. As days flow into weeks of waiting, Alan reflects on his life both past and present.

The writing is beautiful: “A plume of smoke unzipped the blue sky beyond the mountains,” a “pair of headlights appeared as a blue sunrise beyond the ridge’s ragged silhouette”, “People think you’re able to help them and usually you can’t, and so it becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint.” “We’ve become a nation of indoor cats, he’d said. A nation of doubters, worriers, overthinkers. Thank God these weren’t the kind of Americans who settled this country. They were a different breed! They crossed the country in wagons with wooden wheels! People croaked along the way, and they barely stopped. Back then, you buried your dead and kept moving.”

An interesting read.

SECOND PERSON SINGULAR

SAYED KASHUA

“Second Person Singular” follows two main characters, one  “the lawyer,” the other Amir Lahab, a poor Arab from the occupied territories who moves to Jerusalem to study and become a social worker. The lawyer, too, is from a small village in the territories, and as their stories unfold, it becomes clear each is trying to leave not only class, but a large part of their Arabic heritage behind.

Amir lands a job as a caretaker for a comatose Jew about his own age, working the overnight hours in the young man’s house shared with his wealthy mother. Trouble begins when the lawyer buys some second hand books. The comatose young man’s name is inscribed in the book from which falls a note in the lawyer’s wife’s handwriting. “I waited for you, but you didn’t come,” the note says. “I hope everything’s all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?” This drives the lawyer completely insane with jealousy as he imagines his wife with another man.

Both the lawyer and Amir leave their villages in flights from their pasts, and as steps to different futures. The lawyer is ambitious , he works hard to become accepted among upper-class Arabs in Israel, and by Jews, as well. Though his rise as a criminal defense lawyer isn’t driven by a social conscience. He has constructed a persona, pursued his career simply because it buys him the social access and acceptance he so craves. A liberal in conversation with the self-important crowd with which he socializes (premarital sex is fine, gays should be treated as equals, women are victims across the Arab world), the small-town traditionalist within bubbles to the surface when he talks himself into being a cuckold.  Amir is driven by fear of returning to his village and his mother’s scandal-wracked past. He goes one step further than the lawyer in trying to create a new sense of self: He assumes another identity completely, begins to speak only Hebrew, and forges a career in Jerusalem as a Jew.

An unusual story coming out of Israel and Palestine. A good read.

JERUSALEM: Chronicles from the Holy City

GUY DELISLE

Jerusalem is a graphic memoir of Delisle’s living in Jerusalem with his wife who works with Médecins Sans Frontières. His two previous memoirs were also excellent: ShenzenPyongyang and Burma Chronicles. Delisle illustrates the mundane and the fascinating aspects of the places he chronicles with an incredible eye for detail. He begins with the flight to Israel, a jovial old Russian man on the plane to the city calms Delisle’s cranky child by hoisting her in the air. Delisle is surprised to see concentration-camp serial numbers tattooed along his forearm: “We’ve seen so many horrific images from that time in history,” Delisle remarks, “that my imagination just takes off. But I’m treated to a whole other picture tonight, as this old Russian plays with my daughter thousands of feet in the air.”

Jerusalem provides both an excellent introduction to the conflict in the Middle East and a fascinating close-up of what it’s like to live in the most sacred city in the world. The city of Hebron,is an example of the deeply rooted strife in Palestine. Delisle guides us through the Old City section of the West Bank community, where Israeli settlers live on one side of the street, and Palestinians on the other, between which famously documented hanging nets prevent them from throwing stones and refuse down onto passersby of the opposite religion.

Delisle is astounded at the desensitization of Jerusalemites to repression. Men go for jogs with assault rifles strapped to their backs, and whether or not one can visit certain neighbourhoods depends on a number of factors, including your ability to cite the proper religious prayers, your dress, the day of the week and which soldiers are on duty.

Jerusalem is a must read.

THE RUINS OF US

KEIJA PARSSINEN

American born Rosalie is content living in Saudi Arabia with her powerful and wealthy Saudi husband Abdullah Baylani. They have two beautiful kids, Faisal who at sixteen resents what he sees as his family’s decadent ways, longs for purity and Allah and studies with a fundamentalist sheik. Miriam, their daughter, is younger and wants to change the country in ways that will bring greater freedom to women. One morning when out at a jewellery store, the owner asks if Rosalie liked her anniversary present of black onyx earrings. It is then she realizes that her husband has taken a second wife which is legal but almost never done in Saudi society. Rosalie’s world falls apart.

It was an interesting read to have this peek into Saudi and expat lifestyles.